The piece started off strong, with perfect penmanship and few mistakes, but as Kevin Bartram flipped through the 1800s sheet music – as the handwriting trailed off and the composer lost focus – his heart grew heavy.
“You could tell he was desperately trying to finish,” Bartram said of the musician, who died before completing the score. “It was sad.”
Longtime director of the UMW Philharmonic Orchestra, Bartram has hit plenty of highs and lows while working on the Unearthing America’s Musical Treasures project. Plowing through lost – but revivable – works at the Library of Congress (LOC), he felt everything from grief to euphoria. The one emotion that’s remained constant is pride, for the colleagues and students who have stepped up to help.
“I made a point of having them not simply serve as assistants but as real researchers,” Bartram said of UMW seniors, violinist Juliette Guillox and cellist Bethel Mahoney, and junior violinist Elyse Ridder. “They’re clearly more self-confident as a result of this project.”
Saturday night in Dodd Auditorium, joined by legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, the orchestra will play four of the eight fully restored pieces to have come out of the years-long endeavor Bartram hopes to continue.
It was a lofty ambition to say the least: The LOC’s musical holdings top 25 million. Paired down to only symphonic works by only American composers, the total falls to a mere 1.5 million. “When we first talked about this project, they literally laughed at me,” Bartram told the With Good Reason radio show when they interviewed him last March about Treasures.
But in 2015, Bartram, then president of the College Orchestra Directors Association (CODA), took a leap of faith, launching it anyway to promote intercollegiate research. Colleagues across the country joined in, recruiting their own students to help them take over where the masters left off and finish works that might never have seen the light of the stage.
The team further narrowed the focus to only unknown works written for a full symphony orchestra before 1923, when the concept of “public domain” came into play. The first step alone – searching the stacks for a pool of prospective pieces to tackle – took a year.
“Sometimes, alone in the library, these composers start speaking to you,” Bartram said of the music, none of which was ever recorded. “The notes start leaping out. You start hearing the composer.”
Students Mahoney, Ridder and Guillox jumped at the chance to join the effort.
“I’ve always been interested in doing music-related research,” Mahoney said. “I knew this would be the perfect opportunity.”
The work has been tedious. Original manuscripts have been transferred to a computer program, composers studied and scores analyzed. Hundreds of hours have gone into filling the gaps, adding missing musical notes and changing phrases to achieve full orchestral sound. There have been promotional public talks, CODA conferences, daylong trips to the LOC, weekly meetings, countless emails and texts, and, of course, rehearsals and performances, including a show last month clear across coasts in L.A.
Among the gems the project has mined are The Birds, the first-ever piece penned by Bartram’s former teacher and musical hero Leonard Bernstein as a 21-year-old student at Harvard, and a newly discovered score written by famed composer Aaron Copland, while in Paris in his 20s.
“I was under Dr. Bartram’s wing with editing and finishing it,” said Ridder, who spent six months resurrecting the score that exists only in manuscript form with Copland’s handwritten notes at the LOC. “During the process, I realized more and more that this is what I want to specialize in.”
During Saturday’s concert, the Philharmonic Orchestra, made up of UMW and Fredericksburg community members, will deliver the first known public performances of an early 1900s work by Charles Hambitzer and an 1862 piece by Karl Hohnstock. The group, joined by Sandoval, also will present Anthony Philip Heinrich’s 1834 Concerto for Kent Bugle, the earliest symphonic score on file at the LOC.
“I believe these composers would be thrilled that their work lives on with this project,” said Bartram, whose focus remains on his students. “I hope they’ve come away with an understanding that through determined effort, they can make a difference.”
Tickets, which are currently available only at the door on the night of the concert, start at $25.