Words of a president

James Earl Jones to narrate 'A Lincoln Portrait'

James Earl Jones to narrate 'A Lincoln Portrait'

June 14, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - James Earl Jones is no stranger to Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait."

"I perform it every chance I get," the 78-year-old actor said in a telephone interview from his New York state home.

Local audiences will be able to hear the award-winning actor narrate "A Lincoln Portrait" with the Gettysburg Festival Orchestra Friday at the Majestic Theater. The performance is part of the Gettysburg Festival.

Several years ago, Jones heard Charlton Heston do a version of the composition. And Jones said he was able to chat with Copland about the piece several years before his 1990 death.


"I was impressed by the music in particular and the few choice words," Jones said, "and how that president brings out an American sense of grandeur more than any other president. I don't know if it was the trauma of the war or the trauma of his assassination or simply the presence he shared with the country when he was alive. I don't know."

Jones said Copland's music and text - mostly taken from Lincoln's own writings - are a perfect pairing.

"The words become an instrument with the orchestra," he said. "It's the same kind of grandeur that we hear in Copland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man' that defines Lincoln. No other president has called for that kind of sound out of a nation."

Jones said he's proud to be a part of "A Lincoln Portrait." He especially said he likes traveling to places such as Gettysburg to be a part of Copland's composition.

He said one reason he enjoys narrating in front of an orchestra is because actors don't get such opportunities. Once in a while, he said, an actor can narrate small portions of an opera or concert, but not like what Jones is doing in Gettysburg.

And for Jones, it can be a little distracting.

"Sometimes the conductor has to tap the little baton, like 'It's your cue,'" he said with a laugh. "I'm looking around because somebody's making a sound on his instrument and I'm thinking, 'How does he do that?' It often happens in rehearsal."

He said he always enjoys working with the orchestras.

"They're such wonderfully dedicated people," he said.

His performance in Gettysburg won't be the first time he'll have a Lincoln connection. Earlier this year, Jones narrated "A Lincoln Portrait" at Ford's Theatre in Washington to celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday.

And for Jones, Lincoln's presence still resonates. "No other president has ever had that affect on us, on our time, on our history," he said.

Jones said he remembered watching a documentary on TV about how Lincoln's body traveled by train from Washington to Illinois, stopping along the way to a grieving public.

"That's an unusual trip for the traveler in the casket as well as the people standing by the train side to salute him," he said. "... That is always with me."

During his visit to Ford's Theatre, Jones met President Obama for the first time. He has since met him again.

"I never want to take up his time. But if I have a third chance to meet him and shake his hand, I must find a way to simply state how important he is to me, from my generation," Jones said.

Jones, who is a fairly conservative, independent voter, said Obama is important to him culturally more than politically.

He said he remembers watching the election of Obama. He and his wife had dined at his brother-in-law's Connecticut home.

"It looked like it was going to be a toss up, so we came home," he said.

When they got home, he turned the TV news on while his wife was upstairs. That's when the official word was announced and he yelled for his wife, Cecilia, to join him.

"We just started dancing," he said.

If you go ...

WHAT: James Earl Jones narrates "A Lincoln Portrait" with the Gettysburg Festival Orchestra

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 19

WHERE: Majestic Theater, 25 Carlisle St., Gettysburg, Pa.

COST: $75 to $84

CONTACT: For ticket information, call 717-337-8200 or As of press time Wednesday, tickets were still available for the show. For more information about the Gettysburg Festival, visit

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