Baltimore in deep focus with 'The City,' a multimedia work to be premiered by the BSO

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Baltimore's history, happy and sad, inspires multimedia piece "The City," to be premiered by BSO.

About three years ago, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop got an idea for a multimedia piece.

"I wanted some kind of art work that would represent Baltimore, since [the BSO's] personality derives so much from our city, but also a work that would more broadly represent the American city," Alsop says. "And we live in such a visual society that I felt it's important to acknowledge that in some way."

The conductor had a composer and filmmaker in mind for the project: Kevin Puts, recipient of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera "Silent Night" and a Peabody Conservatory faculty member, whose music Alsop has long championed; and James Bartolomeo, a director-cinematographer whose previous film subjects include Alsop, the BSO and the orchestra's educational project OrchKids.

Having arrived at a concept and a creative team, Alsop saw a way to tie things into a dual celebration. The result was a co-commission by the BSO to mark the orchestra's centennial this year, and by Carnegie Hall to mark that famed venue's 125th anniversary.

"The City" will be have its premiere this week at Meyerhoff Hall, the Music Center at Strathmore and Carnegie Hall on a program that also features Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

Things were upbeat when the founding of "The City" got underway. Bartolomeo, a Baltimore native now living in Bethesda, started gathering images a couple of years ago. He eventually sent a slide show of them to Puts, who lives outside New York. The composer began writing the music late in the winter of 2015.

Then Freddie Gray was arrested.

The unrest that enveloped parts of Baltimore after Gray's death from injuries suffered while in police custody affected the creators of "The City."

"There was no way we could avoid making a reference in the piece to the riots," says the St. Louis-born Puts. "That really did deepen the work."

The composer, who travels to Baltimore several times each semester to teach at Peabody, was not in the city when the unrest broke out but arrived shortly afterward.

"Walking from Penn Station [to the conservatory], you could feel something in the air," Puts says. "You could feel people on the street trying to make a point of getting along. That was really powerful."

A part of that experience would find its way into "The City."

Puts, who has focused a good deal on opera lately ("The Manchurian Candidate" premiered last year with the Minnesota Opera, which also introduced his "Silent Night"), wasn't immediately sure how to proceed when he got the BSO-Carnegie Hall commission.

"I've never worked with a filmmaker before," he says. "Marin's initial idea was very nonspecific, so I started thinking of a way into the piece and [envisioned] shots of cityscapes, skylines and infrastructure to open. Then a more intimate description of people and their relationships, before zooming back out again at the end. That's all I had. I didn't know where I was going."

Meanwhile, Bartolomeo, who served as a production assistant on John Waters' "Hairspray" and as a camera assistant on such TV shows as "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Sopranos," was settling on images. Working long-distance, the two men gradually settled on a structure for the piece.

"Kevin is a wonderful guy and very generous with ideas," Bartolomeo says. "We had long email conversations." (As the score took shape, Puts sent Bartolomeo a MIDI realization of it as reference.)

The filmmaker combed various archives in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington. The pictures, spanning about a century, include nods to famous Baltimoreans, as well as shots of neglected spaces, such as a weed-filled Memorial Stadium.

"I didn't want too much of iconic images," Bartolomeo says. "I tried to have a fluid mixture. And I did not want it to be a Ken Burns documentary with a lot of cross-fading between black-and-white photos. It's more a memory stream. I had fun with the footage. I used shots of the HonFest and vintage shots of women getting beehive hairdos."

Bartolomeo extended his search for imagery and, aided by responses to a Craigslist ad, ended up with material of a more personal nature.

"Jim created images of Baltimore that are familiar and even familial — he uses home movies he got from people," Alsop says.

More or less simultaneously with the fashioning of the film, Puts crafted the score. For the most part, the collaborators saw eye to eye.

"Jim had a shot of a 'Welcome to Baltimore' sign in there, and I convinced him to take that out," Puts says. "I wanted [the film] to feel it could be about any city. In the end, I think he did a beautiful job. He tailor-made the film to fit with the music."

Puts describes the opening portion of his score as having "a raw, primal" quality, with "a lot of drums and primordial-sounding melodies in the woodwinds." Out of this, an anthem-like idea eventually emerges in the strings.

"The anthem is deconstructed and rebuilt in a more ambiguous way," Puts says. "Then everything just stops and there's a sustained tone passed around the sections of the orchestra for a minute or so."

When Bartolomeo heard what he called that "searing, skin-crawling tone," he sensed it was the moment for imagery of the rioting to be introduced.

"I do a lot of rhythmic cutting of footage, culminating in an aerial shot of the CVS store burning," the filmmaker says. "Then the picture drops out for three minutes. Kevin and Marin felt it was essential to have some period where it was just music, and as unorthodox as that sounds, that's what we did. Kevin does some really dazzling work during those three minutes."

Alsop calls the image-free span "really impactful. It gives the listener a moment to contemplate personally how you feel about all that happened."

When the film resumes, showing the aftermath of the riots, the mood changes musically and visually for the last portion of "The City."

"It's gradually more about healing — people trying to clean up, trying to reconcile their differences and understand each other," Puts says. "I wanted the final message of the piece to be optimistic and hopeful, but there's also a sense of uncertainty. We're not trying to make everything OK."

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If you go

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs Kevin Puts' "The City" and Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at 8 p.m. April 14 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; and 8 p.m. April 15 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $35 to $105. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org. Also, 8 p.m. April 16 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

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