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Fredericksburg Symphony makes its debut with 'On Top of the World,' featuring Abigail Rockwell
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Fredericksburg Symphony makes its debut with 'On Top of the World,' featuring Abigail Rockwell

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As live performances return to stages around Fredericksburg—a new sound is joining the lineup.

The Fredericksburg Symphony Orchestra strikes its first chord on Friday, Oct. 29, with its inaugural concert. Founded by maestro Kevin Bartram, former conductor of the UMW Philharmonic Orchestra, the nonprofit 65-piece FSO comprises many of the most talented musicians in the region, both amateur and professional. The group also boasts many of the region’s finest music teachers and young performers, Bartram said.

The first performance, “On Top of the World,” starts off strong with a slate of classic melodies and new interpretations of American standards.

It begins with Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” “with its gorgeous string melodies, lyrical woodwind solos, and powerful brass and percussion fanfares,” he said.

Then, the orchestra will perform “Rockwell Reflections,” an interpretation of five famous Norman Rockwell paintings by composer Stella Sung. Rockwell’s granddaughter, Abigail Rockwell, will be on hand to narrate the story of his work.

After that, the group will perform Brian Balmages’ new work and will conclude with Aaron Copland’s American masterpiece “Rodeo.”

The centerpiece of the performance, “Rockwell Reflections,” was originally scheduled to be performed locally by the UMW Philharmonic Orchestra in March 2020, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. Abigail Rockwell said she is excited to première her symphony narration now.

“So we carry on,” she said. “With more wisdom, understanding, more light, more shadows, more of ourselves that we had forgotten in the frenzied pace of life before the threat of a virus took hold of us all.”

Each movement is based on one of Norman Rockwell’s works, which will be projected on a large screen. Echoed in the music are his paintings “Artist Facing a Blank Canvas,” an expression of his own creative process; “The Stay at Homes,” showing an old man, a boy and a dog looking at the sea; “Checkers,” of a game of checkers played by circus performers; “Murder in Mississippi,” his 1965 response to racialized murder; and “The Peace Corps,” which evokes the legacy of John F. Kennedy.

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Abigail Rockwell became involved after Bartram approached her with Sung’s work. She didn’t know about the piece before, but said “it brought her to tears” when she heard it.

She knew the famous artist simply as “Pop.” For Rockwell, letting music and art speak in an event like this is a heady mix: “It’s powerful, the mixing of art, music and biography, at a time when we need to believe in goodness of people again in this country, in the world,” she said. “Wedded to Pop’s work is the feeling of an essential belief in people.”

And during her trip to Fredericksburg for the performance, Rockwell will speak to local students about her experiences as an artist. She’s an artist in her own right and has a holiday album, “A Rockwell Christmas,” coming out in 2022. She said the project was birthed at the darkest point in the pandemic and she’s excited for it to reach audiences.

Bartram said they are using this first performance to demonstrate the purpose of an orchestra: education and inspiration. Bartram now serves as the orchestra director at James Monroe High and Walker Grant Middle schools, and he’s bringing Rockwell to the schools to meet with students. He said the professional musicians in the orchestra, too, will be on hand in the future to expand creative opportunities in the region and simply show students what an orchestra looks like—and how they, too, can explore music.

He got the idea for the group in June and started asking around to find out if it would be possible here. The seats filled fast with musicians, and he said there was an outpouring of interest and support from the community.

“Every major city has an orchestra,” he said. “And for those cities, it’s a matter of civic pride.”

This area, he said, is full of musicians looking for a creative outlet following the isolation of the pandemic. But also, he said it’s now possible to see this caliber of performance “without driving to the Kennedy Center.”

He’s hoping in the next seasons to attract world-class performers to guest star with the group.

The orchestra’s first season continues with a holiday pops concert this December titled “A Season of Giving,” featuring “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride” and “White Christmas,” along with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The following performance travels abroad with its renditions of European classics in “A European Fantasy” in March. The inaugural season concludes with Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5 in E Minor” in April.

“Composed in 1888, the symphony reflects the Romantic Era’s sense of longing, and—more typical of Tchaikovsky—sense of fate,” Bartram said.

Having just completed the first few rehearsals, Bartram said the group is beginning to find out who it is as a collective and what it can become. What’s clear though, he said, is that it is a very fine group that will continue to rise to the occasion for each performance.

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