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Church in Chestnut Hill debuts art and music about gun violence

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This weekend, an arts festival at a church in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood will debut new works about gun violence.

The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill has been hosting an annual arts festival since 2000; it’s normally a showcase of music and visual art presented in the church’s sanctuary and community room.

This year, however, the festival is proactively about gun violence, with the premiere of a newly commissioned choral work by a Pulitzer-winning composer; reading of a new play based on the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School which left 20 children dead; and a gallery of portraits of 21 shooting victims, painted for the festival.

The church partnered with the anti-violence group Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence to pair artists with families of shooting victims — including two Philadelphia police officers.

“It was met with resounding positive response,” said co-curator Rebecca Thornburgh. “These people wanted to be heard, and wanted their family member to be remembered in this way.”

The 21 artists worked with the families to come up with a way to portray their loved one. Some have the rough look of folk art; some are expressive — a portrait in gold leaf or a picture of a sunflower; and some — such as the likeness of Philadelphia Police Officer Gary Skerski, who was shot in 2006 while responding to a robbery — are formal portraits.

“The intent was not to talk about their violent deaths, but rather the joyousness of the life they lived,” said Thornburgh. “To contemplate the future life that could have been, had it not been cut short.”

The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill has robust music programming all year, providing a home base for the new music choral group The Crossing and the early music ensemble Piffaro. So it didn’t shirk on this Sunday’s concert.

The church commissioned Lewis Spratlan — a composer based in Amherst, Massachusetts, who won a Pulitzer in 2010 for his opera “Life is a Dream” — to write a choral piece about gun violence.

The composer has a close connection to the church: Its music director, Daniel Spratlan, is his son.

“This topic of gun violence was going to be the focus. That’s all he told me,” said Spratlan, recalling the request from his son, who was planning a music program of Mozart’s “Requiem” and James MacMillan’s “A Child’s Prayer.” It was to honor the 16 children killed in the 1996 Dunblane Primary School shooting, which led to changes to Scotland’s gun laws.

Both those pieces are somber and mournful. Spratlan’s son wanted to add a different tone.

“He wanted something very counter to that, about gun violence, vividly,” he said. “I took the challenge.”

Working with poet Paul Kane, Spratlan composed “Unspoken Words” in six movements: “Gun,” “Bullet,” “Finger,” “Body,” “Blood,” and “Siren.” It is, by turns, threatening, loud, angular, pulsing, and quiet to the point of oozing. The descending choral harmonies during “Blood,” propelled by a softly pulsing trombone, are meant to resemble a pool of blood.

“It’s tough. It’s a difficult piece,” Spratlan said at the first rehearsal for the piece — the first time he heard his composition performed. “It’s got a lot of dissonance in it, which they are not necessarily used to. I think they are doing a great job. The singing is very expressive. I’m very pleased.”

The Festival of Music and the Arts at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill is free. All donations collected during the weekend will be donated to Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence.

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