Taking notes on city

Jacob Bancks, selected to compose for Charter 300, visits Annapolis for some musical inspiration

May 06, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

Fresh-faced composer Jacob Bancks is one of four finalists in the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's competition to write a piece reflecting the spirit of the city.

A fine challenge, he thought. Except the Midwesterner had never seen Annapolis.

That changed last week, when Bancks, 25, flew into town in search of inspiration. He just may have found it by the water.

"The voyages across the water people have taken from all over the world," he said pensively, "to see this beautiful city at the end of the voyage."

Bancks faces a September deadline to submit a composition to the symphony, the main musical component of the city's Charter 300 celebration. Next year will mark three centuries since a royal charter government was established, marking the start of democracy in Annapolis.

The ASO's international Young Composers Competition drew 111 applicants ages 35 and under. Last month the field was winnowed to four, each of whom received $5,000 and was commissioned to write an orchestral piece that will have its world premiere in an ASO performance. Audiences and musicians will help music director Jose-Luis Novo and others to determine the winner, who will receive an additional $5,000 and have the work professionally recorded.

"There's nothing like this," Bancks said, "commissioning four young composers and perspectives."

Bancks, a University of Chicago doctoral student in composition, decided to spend part of his prize money on a trip to Maryland's capital. Other finalists are based in New York, Arlington, Va., and Missouri. The winner will be named next year, once all the pieces are premiered in concert.

His musical heritage comes from Fairmonth, a small town in southern Minnesota, where he was the church pianist from the age of 7 until he left for college. He became an accomplished pianist and composes at the piano, writing first drafts in longhand.

"I always had music in me," he said. "You brought your own art to it."

The work Bancks submitted for the first-round judging was a clarinet concerto named for and inspired by Chicago, where he lives, and written for his wife, Kara. She was the soloist in the concerto recording. Both studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

"So I'm really here because of Kara," he said, smiling at his wife, who accompanied him to Annapolis.

The couple hoped to soak up a sense of the city. The pair began their self-guided walking tour by peering inside St. Anne's Parish Episcopal Church. The two admired the organ.

"Episcopalians really know how to do music," he said.

Coming from a city conceived on a grand scale, they felt the intimacy of the streetscape as they sauntered down Duke of Gloucester Street. "You can see the history around you, in the width of the streets and the closeness of the buildings," Bancks said.

Then the couple dropped by City Hall unannounced to say hello to Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

In her office, Bancks complimented the mayor on the friendliness he encountered everywhere. "The people in CVS are fantastic," he said.

Moyer told them her office might have been the space where George Washington played cards. In that era, she added, Annapolis was known as "the Athens of America," she said.

"When this was a wealthy English city, horse racing began here," Moyer said. "The racehorses came in by ship."

As the couple prepared to leave City Hall, Karen Engelke, an aide to Moyer, gave each a small replica scroll of the city charter, tied up in a red ribbon.

Friday night, the pair had plans to go to a symphony rehearsal. The next day, they planned to tour the Naval Academy.

But for now, they were at the water's edge, by the story wall, part of the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley sculptural memorial, a stark reminder that slave ships from West Africa unloaded here.

The young composer was thinking aloud about how to fit history's voyages and contradictions into six to 10 minutes of music.

"The lines between the city and the water aren't clearly drawn," Jacob Bancks said. "But it defines the city."


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