Joseph Willard Roosevelt came from a family that excelled. The Roosevelt legacy includes two presidents, activists, servicemen, a naturalist, politicians, writers, a governor and a Noble Peace Prize winner. But the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt — who died when Willard, who went by his mother’s maiden name, was just 1 — chose a different path.
A World War II Navy veteran, he served as the commander of the USS Greene before earning a music degree from the Hartt School, a performing arts conservatory at the University of Hartford. He went on to become a pianist and composer.
His published works include an opera, four orchestral works, 14 chamber works and 30 compositions for solo voices. Yet his music has not been played locally since his death on May 18, 2008, when he was 90. That will change this weekend, when “A Weekend with Willard” will be presented. Two performances, on April 20 and 22, will be in Oyster Bay, and the other in Orient.
“I’m not very musical, and didn’t know Willard at all,” said Elizabeth Roosevelt, Theodore’s third cousin twice removed. She is the only member of the Roosevelt family still living in Oyster Bay. “We are an enormous family, with people that do all kinds of things, from flying commercial jets to engineering.”
Elizabeth said she was looking forward to hearing Willard’s music for the first time. As a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera who listens to classical music on the radio, she made a change in her schedule so she could attend Sunday’s concert at the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Public Library.
The library concert has been sold out for the past month, which may be a testament to the public’s love of classical music and its devotion to the Roosevelts. But people can attend the 7 p.m. Friday concert, which was originally set for Sagamore Hill but has been moved to Oyster Bay High School due to chilly temperatures. Cosponsored by Simon Roosevelt, Willard’s grandson, and the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the concert will feature the Sagamore Hill Band, conducted by Stephen Walker, who retired in 2013 as the music teacher for the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District. Reservations are also still available for the Saturday 4 p.m. concert in Orient, where Willard lived, which is co-sponsored by the Roosevelt family.
This will be the first classical concert in 18 years at the library. The Friends of the Library and the Long Island Composers Alliance will sponsor it. “The last time I got to play this piano was in 1997 when I performed a dedication to it,” said Leonard Lehrman pointing to a Yamaha piano in the library’s community room, which is covered. A pianist, composer and conductor, he is also a reference librarian at the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Library.
A framed piece of music entitled, “For oyStEr BAy EASt norwiCH puBliC liBrAry,” written by Lehrman, hangs on the wall above it. Billy Joel donated the funds to purchase the piano and its dedication was a big deal Lehrman said. But that was years ago.
Walker, a lifelong resident of Oyster Bay, whose grandparents had worked as servants on the Howard C. Smith Cove Neck estate, said his father had gone to Theodore Roosevelt’s funeral. “Dad said he was wearing his Boy Scout uniform,” he said. “He was 14. Dad talked about TR often, but never really knew him.”
But like many people in Oyster Bay, the Walker family always felt a connection to the Roosevelts. “I knew music was written about TR and I wanted to find it,” he said. In 1988 he conducted a formal concert featuring music that referenced the Roosevelt family, songs like “Teddy Jr. March” and “Alice Blue Gown,” written about Roosevelt’s oldest daughter. Five years later he was intent on presenting another concert, but he wanted to expand upon his first endeavor.
“I found out that Kermit’s son was a composer and lived in Orient,” he said, adding that people didn’t know of him because he didn’t participate much in Roosevelt family events. “I asked him if he ever dedicated a piece to his father.”
Willard said he would think about doing so. He went on to create “The Twinkle in His Eye,” in memory of his father from two untitled band pieces he had composed in 1979. Walker had his band perform it in 1993 at Oyster Bay High School and Willard came to hear the performance.
Lehrman met Willard in 1993 after Walker’s concert. “I read an article about him in the New York Times and invited him to join the Long Island Composers Alliance, which he did,” Lehrman said. “He did many concerts with us from 1993 to 1998, including his 80th birthday concert in 1998 at the Merrick Library.”
That was a special concert not only because it marked the talented composer’s birth, but also because a piece of Willard’s music was premiered. “He came to the Oyster Bay Library and looked in our Theodore Roosevelt collection and found a 1904 letter from his grandfather to his father,” Lehrman said. “He set it to music calling it ‘TR’s Letter to Kermit.’” The piece, which was commissioned by John Gable and the Theodore Roosevelt Association, will be performed once again at Sunday’s concert at the library.
The composer was very personable, Lehrman said, and amiable to making small changes and giving clarifications on his music. He was also very anti-war, and very supportive of civil rights, which he was vocal about.
It was Michele Vaccarelli, the new director of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Library that encouraged Lehrman to bring the concert to the library. He had spoken to her about his dismay that the library no longer allowed for concerts. “I have a love for classical music,” she said. “And my daughter is a ballet dancer so classical music is a part of us.”
Lehrman said Roosevelt’s music is “definitely worth hearing,” an “acquired taste that needs nurturing” and that “his music lives in the dynamics.”
The concerts are all free. For further informaion on the Oyster Bay concerts, call (516) 922-4788. For the concert in Orient, call (631) 323-8274.