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Friday, January 11, 2013

Turning Point

Spending time in another century is one of the joys of  museum life. Over the last week I've been buried in Civil War manuscripts, to the point that when I walk down the street my brain reruns fragments of letters I've read or muses on the precise sequences of events in a particular day's battle. When I spend time with the Civil War, what comes out is reams of label text (in this case for the upcoming exhibit Voices of 1863). But when composer-in-residence Dave Burrell spends time with Civil War manuscripts, what comes out is fascinating and powerful music.

We've written about Burrell's previous projects on the blog (see here and here), but this week I was able to take a brief break from my own Civil War musings to hear a preview of his compositions for the Turning Point concerts to be held next week on Wednesday and Saturday.

Turning Point is the third of five years of Civil War-themed compositions and each year has had a very different organizing idea. The first program, Portraits of Civil War Heroes, took as its subject famous individuals such as John Brown and Robert E. Lee. Last year's Civilians in Wartime was organized around groups of people--spies, children, etc.. This year's concert is inspired by events--the Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg, Vicksburg. But in talking with Dave Burrell about his compositions, it is clear that he has strong mental and emotional impressions of the people experiencing the events: he envisions a congregation's jubilant but confused response to the Emancipation Proclamation or the tired and hungry Confederates besieged at Vicksburg. These images and emotions are not in the music in a strictly narrative way, but inform the compositions and give them great depth.

I am no music critic, so I don't want to say too much about the music itself, except to say that I think you'll like it. If you came to last year's performance you might be especially interested in One Nation, which opens the concert. This composition intertwines the themes of Yankee Doodle and Dixie; last year Burrell included an intentionally simple treatment of the piece, with the plan that it could grow and develop musically in subsequent years. Having heard this year's expansion, even without the trombone part, I have to say it's one of my favorite pieces in the program. My other personal favorite is Battle of Vicksburg which closes the program. To me, this piece somehow evokes both the rattle of the perpetual shelling and a beautiful sense of solemnity.

Again, my words can't do justice to Burrell's work, so if you want to hear this complex and wonderful music for yourself, please be sure to RSVP to reserve your tickets. In the past, these concerts have sold out. You can call (215)732-1600, ext. 123 or e-mail

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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