BSO salutes legacy of Harriet Tubman with new composition

The BSO commissioned Baltimore composer and Morgan State professor James Lee III to write a piece inspired by Harriet Tubman. The symphony premieres the piece, "Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan," this weekend.
The BSO commissioned Baltimore composer and Morgan State professor James Lee III to write a piece inspired by Harriet Tubman. The symphony premieres the piece, "Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan," this weekend. (Handout photo)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is all about brand-new this month. Two weeks after premiering David T. Little's Baltimore-inspired "Charm," the BSO is set to premiere another commissioned work — "Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan," by James Lee III.

Lee's composition — in Biblical Hebrew, "chuphshah" means "freedom" — connects to a theme running through the BSO's season: music to celebrate women who persevered against oppression.

"Harriet Tubman's ties to Maryland and heroic efforts to shepherd hundreds out of slavery … inspired me to commission a new work to honor and celebrate her legacy," BSO music director Marin Alsop said. "James was a natural choice to write this piece."

Lee, an associate professor of composition and theory at Morgan State University, welcomed the commission.

"I knew of Harriet Tubman, of course," he said, "but I hadn't read that much about her before. I was really surprised to learn that she was from Maryland. As I got to know more, I thought of stories I could try to convey in music."

For background, he drove to the Eastern Shore, where Tubman was born.

"I got more from books, actually," the Michigan-born Lee said. "When I was over there, I couldn't see too much. I found a commemorative plaque of her birthplace, but I could only look into the distance, so as not to trespass on someone's property. I tried to realize what it would have been like there for her."

(The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is due to open in Dorchester County in 2013, the centennial of Tubman's death.)

Composing a work about a historical figure is a departure for Lee, 35, who moved to Baltimore shortly after earning his doctorate at the University of Michigan in 2005.

For his doctoral dissertation, he wrote "Beyond Rivers of Vision," a prismatic, large-scale score inspired by the Book of Revelation, with subtle textural references woven into the score. That particular book of the Bible is a frequent source of musical inspiration for the composer, who is currently studying Hebrew and the Ethiopian language Amharic.

One of Lee's teachers, composer William Bolcom, alerted conductor Leonard Slatkin to "Beyond Rivers of Vision." In 2006, Slatkin led the National Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of the piece. The conductor said at the time that he "found the work not only engaging and colorful, but also deeply moving."

The BSO began to notice Lee, too, and performed individual movements from that same work in 2008 and 2010.

Coincidentally, "Beyond Rivers of Vision" premiered on a program with Dvorak's Cello Concerto. "Chuphshah" shares a program with the same concerto.

"That seems even more appropriate this time," Lee said, "since Dvorak made a point [in the early 1890s] of saying that composers in this country should make use of African-American spirituals."

Throughout "Chuphshah," Lee weaves in references to spirituals, including "Go Down Moses."

Hints of "Dixie" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" also turn up in the score. "I pit melodies against each other, in a good-versus-evil way," Lee said.

The orchestration of "Chuphshah" contains evocative touches. Tubman is represented by the soulful-sounding English horn. In the opening moments, a marimba's agitated music conjures images of a nocturnal escape.

During the 12-minute work, battles are suggested, both those of the Civil War and those in Tubman's life. Listeners may not pick up all of those details, but "they will know something is happening," Lee said.

At the close, a spiritual called "'No More Auction Block for Me" is featured; the tune seems to foreshadow that of a more recent hymn: "We Shall Overcome."



If you go

The BSO performs music of James Lee III, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.