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Civil War love letter inspires wind ensemble

March 14, 2008

Civil War love letter inspires wind ensemble

As the story goes, Maj. Sullivan Ballou was like most men in the Northern army at the start of the Civil War. He fought not to end slavery, but to preserve the Union.

At 32, Ballou had a promising career as a lawyer, a wife and two sons. An ardent Republican and devoted supporter of Abraham Lincoln, he volunteered in the spring of 1861. Ballou and his men left Providence, R.I., for Washington, D.C., on June 19.

Ballou wrote a letter to his wife, Sarah, on July 14 from a camp just outside the nation’s capital. He was awaiting orders that would take him to Manassas, where he and 27 of his men would die a week later at the Battle of Bull Run.

Both a love letter and meditation on the meaning of the Union, the letter caught national importance 129 years after it was written when it was read on Ken Burns’ widely watched TV series, “The Civil War.”

The musical setting of the letter, “Banner of My Purpose,” had its West Coast premiere during the second half of the University Wind Ensemble’s performance in Lagerquist Concert Hall on March 20. Written by composer Daron Hagen, the piece was commissioned by PLU, the University of Michigan, Illinois State University and Western Illinois University.

The composer of operas, chamber and orchestral works, and over two hundred art songs and cycles, Hagen is currently writing an opera based on the life of Amelia Earhart for the Seattle Opera. Hagen was the subject of band director Ed Powell’s doctoral dissertation, and when Hagen began writing “Banner of My Purpose,” he asked if Powell would be interested.

“I’m always looking for ways to expand the repertoire horizons of my ensemble,” Powell said. “It just gives them different types of experiences.”

For this piece, that different experience is working with a soloist. Typically, string instruments accompany soloists, but Hagen set his piece for wind instruments and a baritone. Soloists add a new dynamic to the performance, forcing the musicians to listen with a different ear and be submissive to the soloist, Powell said.

Powell said the piece really came together when John Koch, the soloist, arrived a few days before the performance. The composition was written specifically for Koch, who has performed numerous operatic and oratorio roles around the world.

Powell was also interested in the piece because of the power and drama of the subject matter. Before the ensemble began rehearsing it, Powell and his students spent time studying the letter and understanding the history behind it.

“The students really understand the meaning of the work,” Powell said.