#elijah: a life in music John Wineglass pays tribute to a fallen musician


By Barbara Rose Shuler

Composer John Christopher Wineglass has earned a reputation on the Central Coast for writing and performing music that celebrates nature and people and offers reflections on times we are living through. His latest work celebrates the life of Elijah McClain, the young Colorado man who died after an encounter with law enforcement that resulted in indictments against police officers.

The piece, “#elijah,” will premier this weekend at the Cape Symphony in Hyannis, Mass., as part of its Mayflower and Beyond experience.

Wineglass was moved by news of the August 2019 tragedy in Aurora, Colo. McClain was apparently returning from the store with a cup of iced tea and dancing to music he was listening to when he encountered police officers who put him in a chokehold that blocked his carotid artery. McClain died in the hospital six days later, and his death sparked angry Black Lives Matter protests and resulted in indictments against two police officers and two paramedics.

Like Wineglass, McClain was a Black musician — a violinist — and Wineglass was inspired by the commission to tell the story of the 23-year-old man in music.

The result, said Wineglass, “is a virtuosic piece, about nine minutes long, and it really encapsulates in the different movements who Elijah was.”

According to those who knew Elijah, McClain was a gentle soul and a self-taught musician known for taking his instruments to a nearby animal shelter, where he played his music to relax the animals.

Wineglass said “#elijah” begins “with this airiness about the event that night. Then there is a movement called The Fateful Phone Call. The angst of that moment is indicative of that section of the score, and it goes on to the antagonism of the cops.  The last movement is vigilance and hopefully justice and resilience in his spirit.”

“He was needlessly killed by Aurora police as he walked home one night,” said Wineglass, an Emmy Award-winning musician who moved to Monterey County 15 years ago and is among the most influential and popular musicians in the region.

“Somebody made a phone call about a masked man waving his arms,” Wineglass said. “They injected him with some kind of medicine that stopped his heart. He wore a ski mask because it was cold and ear phones and was dancing. He might have been on the spectrum, a different bird, you know.”

When “#elijah” premiers this weekend, it will feature violinist Randall Goosby, a student of legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman at The Juilliard School. The Cape Symphony artistic director and conductor Jung-Ho Pak, who commissioned “#elijah,” will conduct the work.

Pak, who also lives on the Monterey Peninsula with his family, is one of the four finalists for the position of new music director of the Monterey Symphony.


Elijah McClain | Undated photo from Wikipedia

‘Passionately attached to music’

The new composition is one of several works that kept Wineglass busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had about six commissions during COVID,” he says.  “It’s been nuts.”

When possible, he continues to travel, perform, teach and collaborate with artists all over the world. He comes across as an easygoing fellow who laughs a lot, adores his family, and enjoys lively conversations with friends. When he talks about his life and work, it’s easy to imagine that he also knows how to bend the space-time continuum to accomplish all of this.

How does he manage it all?

“I just get up every morning and try to figure it out,” he told me.

Wineglass doesn’t just play music, create it, travel the world to hear it and to be in the rarefied company of great musicmakers. Music is his joy, his profession, his great challenge, his link to wonderful friendships, his raison d’etre and a source of apparent boundless energy.

“John is passionately attached to music and gets the value of it,” says his friend and colleague Nicola Reilly, executive director of the Monterey Symphony. “He played music as a kid and went to summer camp, studied it in college and studied it in grad school.  It’s part of who he is as a person.  He’s a musical storyteller.”

Soon after Wineglass and his family moved to the Monterey Peninsula 15 years ago — and despite international demand as a composer and musician — he made his creative talents generously available to the local community. He quickly established contact with the region’s vibrant music scene, including the Carmel Bach Festival, the Monterey Symphony, the Santa Cruz Symphony, Cabrillo Music Festival, Ensemble Monterey, and regional choruses and churches.

 The Local Connection

Meanwhile, the local connection between Wineglass and Pak led not only to “#elijah,” but to the ongoing dynamics at the Monterey Symphony.

Pak will conduct the April concert after leading the Monterey Symphony program “Sound Waves” in 2019. That innovative program used unusual elements, including a Water Concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun that featured large water-filled bowls used as percussion instruments.

Last summer, Wineglass was named composer-in-residence for the Monterey Symphony. His five-year contract calls for a new work each year, music inspired by the land, history and artistic bounty of our region.

Wineglass collaborated with music director Max Bragado Darman and the orchestra for the 2016 premiere of “Big Sur: The Night Sun,” a stunning tribute to the land and peoples of the South Coast, which has been performed since by other regional orchestras.

Wineglass is also writing a concerto for violin and orchestra, which the symphony will premiere next October featuring acclaimed Canadian violinist Edwin Huizinga as soloist.

In the meantime, he composed two works expressing the experience of the pandemic. Reilly says they want Wineglass to continue with the Big Sur theme but that the idea of creating new art and new music during this complicated time of COVID mandates also seems important.

The first of the two pandemic-inspired commissioned works, “Alone,” a solo piece featuring the symphony’s concertmaster Christina Mok, was filmed in Sunset Center.

“It has won seven film festival awards, and it’s really taking on a life of its own,” Mok said. “It’s just a gorgeous piece.  To me, the second movement is one of the most beautiful things John has ever written.”

The second work, called “Alone Together,” for chamber orchestra, harp and percussion, was co-commissioned by four California orchestras: Monterey Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Fresno Philharmonic and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.

Reilly says, “We’re going to open in February with our first music director finalist conducting ‘Alone Together.’”

Wineglass was recently in Washington D.C. meeting with representatives of the Library of Congress, where “Alone” and “Alone Together” are being inducted into a permanent installation of artistic expressions and responses to COVID.


Edwin Huizinga with John Wineglass at Sunset Center in Carmel | Photo by Randy Tunnell

Discovering a Mellow Pace

Originally from D.C. himself, Wineglass received a bachelor’s degree in music composition with a minor in viola performance at the American University. He has a master’s in music composition with an emphasis in film scoring from New York University.

He has written scores for shows on MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC, and has scored numerous independent films and nationally syndicated commercials.

His many awards include three Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction and Composition for a Drama Series, three  ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards and seven Emmy nominations.

Wineglass’s classical music writing includes commissions from the Cabrillo Festival, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and The National Endowment for the Arts, among many others. His latest symphonic 2019 premiere, “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice” is dedicated to the lives of millions of African and African American forced laborers who cultivated the immense, expansive and wealthy rice economy in the Low Country.

Regarding his move to the Peninsula, he says, “I’m a New Yorker at heart, but I just wanted something different.” And his wife was eager to leave the big city for a gentler way of life. So they left the fast-paced lifestyle where he had spent decades working in concert halls and high-tech studios.

The mellow pace of the Central Coast made for a good fit for the Wineglass family.  He could easily take advantage of work opportunities in Los Angeles and the Bay Area and return home to a more unhurried life.

His profound connection to the land began when he made a pilgrimage to the Mittledorf Preserve in Big Sur at the urging of a friend connected with the Big Sur Land Trust, who told him to bring his violin to the woods. Not only did the request seem odd but reckless to take his valuable instrument on a hike. But he agreed and brought his violin along.

The Mittledorf property possesses one of the biggest sequoias in Monterey County in its grove of ancient redwood trees. He was astonished by this gigantic tree with a large natural shelter in its trunk.

“It was like a bedroom!” he says. “I had never seen anything like that. I brought out my violin and played to the sanctuary of redwood trees in the back of that property. The reverberation of the instrument with nature, the smell, the people that I was with, it was all magical. It was like a light switch went on that changed the course of my life.”

He had discovered the power of music in collaboration with nature.

“I realized that for thousands of years, musicians made music outdoors.  There were no concert halls.   When you play outdoors, nature participates and inspires with a symphony of its own.”

He also found out that Big Sur is a place of reckoning, as he describes it.  “It forces you to come to peace with yourself.”

He was invited to spend time at Glen Deven Ranch in its artist-in-residence program, where he composed “Big Sur: The Night Sun.” The Ranch, in the Palo Colorado region off Highway 1, is an 860-acre expanse of woodlands, grasslands, river areas and wildlife. The first composition that came to him at Glen Deven was a violin concerto. As the spirit of the land worked its magic on him, sketches began to form. Though the violin concerto receded in focus as he worked on the Big Sur commission, he knew he would return to it.

Edwin Huizinga, whom Wineglass calls his “Viking brother,” is also a Glen Deven artist and a musician of international acclaim, facile in classical, folk, jazz and other genres, whose appearances with the Carmel Bach Festival has earned him a devoted following in our community.

Wineglass describes Huizinga as “this tall redheaded dude who can play the crap out of the violin! We became instant buddies.”

“Both John and I are visceral people,” says Huizinga. “When I hear excerpts of “Big Sur: the Night Sun,” I literally feel John being in Big Sur, I see it.  I’ve been there with him.  We both have this sense of awe with music and the places that we’ve been and the community we support. Those ingredients make me very excited to be part of this.”

There will be more Glen Deven retreats for the two musical friends as the concerto takes form.

As for now, Wineglass is in Cape Cod this week for the premier of “#elijah.” He was asked to reflect on McClain and the events in Aurora that sparked such fervor throughout the country.

“The impact that (the) Elijah McClain incident had on me was one of shock and horror, to be honest,” Wineglass said, adding that the police “wouldn’t even listen to the kid. The feelings of not being served or protected by the very officiants who are charged to do so for every citizen grieved me to the core.”

But as he learned more about McClain, he was inspired by the young man’s character. He was light-hearted, Wineglass said, a massage therapist and a healer. And he believes his “#elijah,” like much of his work, will “give a ray of hope at the end.”

Featured image: John at the piano | Provided by John Wineglass

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.



Barbara Rose Shuler

About Barbara Rose Shuler

Barbara Rose Shuler is a writer and broadcaster best known for her coverage of the arts for various media in the region. For many years she was an FM radio personality producing and hosting classical music programs. She also hosted a public radio interview show for more than two decades featuring conversations with writers, artists, scientists and public figures on a wide range of subjects. She lives in Pacific Grove, California.

One thought on “#elijah: a life in music John Wineglass pays tribute to a fallen musician

  1. I had the privilege of hearing “Elijah” played by Randall Goosby at the Cape Symphony last month. Absolutely beautiful!

Leave a Reply to Janet Billings Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *