School orchestra to premiere 'spooky symphony'

May 15, 1997


Staff Writer

Bugles, drums and cannons figure prominently in a new piece of music written to depict the local "Spook's Hill" legend.

But you'll find only stringed instruments in the hands and laps of the 27 Smithsburg High School Orchestra members who will premiere the new work at the annual spring concert on May 20.

True to the rules-breaking style of "20th-century music," students will use their instruments - and their bodies - to make all the sounds needed to transport listeners to the eerie spot just outside Burkittsville, Md., where cars and other objects appear to travel uphill on their own, said orchestra director Evan Price.

Legend has it that the hill is haunted by rebel soldiers from the Civil War who were ambushed by Union soldiers as they were pushing a cannon up the hill.


Working out the various parts of the five-minute piece has been a collaborative effort between the orchestra and West Virginia composer Mark McCoy, who was commissioned to write an original piece for the orchestra earlier this year.

"We've almost been co-composers as we've gone along," McCoy said.

He said he found it a real challenge to write the work without bringing in any other instruments.

Orchestra members said they enjoy the unconventional elements, including foot stomping and drumming their violins.

The fact that they've worked together on the piece - written just for them - makes playing it so much better, said orchestra members.

"It's not like he just shipped us this and said, `play it,'" said violinist Kristen Booth, who found it exciting to go from idea to performance with McCoy.

Booth, 17, a junior, said she hopes the piece will entice members of the community who are not familiar with the orchestra to check it out.

McCoy painted an excellent sound picture of the legend, said cellist Jess Price.

"You really feel exactly what they must have felt," said Price, 16, a junior.

Price said she thought it was neat how McCoy wove Civil War-era melodies into the piece.

It's fun to play a new piece dealing with local history, said violinist Karen Ginsberg, who feels a special connection with the work because of the collaboration.

Ginsberg, 17, a senior, said that during the bomb scene she feels she's playing for all the soldiers who died in the skirmish.

Having his students go through the creative process with McCoy has been the "whole deal" educationally, said Evan Price.

It all started when Price asked McCoy to talk to his students about the 20th-century style of music earlier in the year, he said.

The idea to commission a work in that style grew out of the visit, said Price, who tried to get grant money for the project.

When that failed, McCoy offered to discount his fee, which students covered with fund-raising activities, he said.

Thirteen eighth-graders from the Smithsburg Middle School Orchestra will join the orchestra in performing the piece, written for a 40-piece string orchestra, Price said.

It was McCoy who proposed using the Frederick County, Md., curiosity and its accompanying ghost story as the subject.

The notoriety of the spooky spot - located between Smithsburg and his home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. - and the musical possibilities he saw in bringing the legend to life made it jump out to him, he said.

"It was such a fun idea. It's a wild place," said McCoy, head of the music and theater department at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Local legend has been a recurring inspiration in his compositions, said McCoy, who composed a 20th-century-style symphony to mark the 300-year anniversary of the Salem witch trials in 1992.

Audience members will have a program note explaining the intended imagery, McCoy said.

Because 20th-century music contains unconventional elements many people have not been exposed to, it's important to give listeners something to guide them, he said.

"There's a lot of strange stuff in there, and if you have the note, it makes perfectly good sense," McCoy said.

The spring concert for both the high school and middle school orchestras is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 20 at the Smithsburg High School Auditorium.

Ticket price is $1.

For more information, call Evan Price at 301-766-8337.

The Herald-Mail Articles