At first, Kevin Puts had a clear idea of what his piece would encompass.
His marching orders from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director Marin Alsop were to create a work about Baltimore, but also about the American city. Puts—a Pulitzer-Prize winning composer who is on the faculty at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University—envisioned tribal rhythms to illustrate the physical nature of a downtown metropolis with bustling streets weaving around towering buildings.
He’d written the first section of The City, but soon after, Freddie Gray died and the city was thrown into turmoil. Puts realized the entire direction of his work had to change. The events of last April had “deepened the potential for the piece to be an agent for healing,” he said.
Baltimore will get to hear Puts' finished product this week, before the BSO performs the piece Saturday at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Accompanying the music is a film of Baltimore created by filmmaker, documentarian, and Baltimore native James Bartolemeo. He and Puts shared similar sentiments about changing their work, and Bartolomeo said he realized he needed “to be more courageous with the images and allow more of the city’s history to be represented in the film.” He and a team of editors gathered home movies, YouTube clips, and news footage to add to the content.
Bartolomeo said he also wanted to connect last year’s unrest to the riots that occurred in April 1968. “There’s a passage in the film where we inter cut footage and images from both events, and the similarity is astonishing.”
The work now includes an illustration of the tumult that resulted from Gray’s death, and ends with a musical resolution that Puts hopes will promote transcendence—though he worries that his ideal audience may not get to experience it.
“The people who are at every orchestra concert are not the people I really want to hear this piece,” Puts said. “It’s the people who feel victimized, who are viewed with distrust or mistrust.”
The BSO performs The City, along with a program featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Processional, another commissioned work by Baltimore native Christopher Rouse, at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Friday. Click here for ticket info.