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America the Musical

It must be fun being Neely Bruce. At 67, the Middletown, CT-based composer, performer, teacher and musicologist is a tireless champion of American music, a bundle of enthusiasm and a font of endless musical projects. His latest is a performance of his “The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets,” a choral arrangement of the text of the Bill of Rights, offered Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Sandisfield Arts Center in Sandisfield, Mass.After a rehearsal last weekend, I sat down with Bruce at McGrane’s in Winsted to discuss the work. Ruddy-faced, with a silver mane of hair and sparkling blue eyes under bushy silver eyebrows, Bruce has a bit of P.D.Q. Bach in him. He sounds a lot like Peter Schickele, albeit with a pronounced twang from his Southern upbringing, and he enjoys the occasional intellectual joke. In fact, he tells me, the subtitle of the piece is a play on the American composer Virgil Thompson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts.”Composed in 2005, the idea for “The Bill of Rights” was “a spontaneous decision,” Bruce said. “That year, the Knight Foundation did a survey of 200 American teenagers to test their knowledge of the First Amendment. Nearly 50 percent thought it was OK for the government to censor the news. I was horrified. I wrote ‘The First Amendment’ in a white heat of inspiration and finished the whole thing in less than two weeks.” It premiered in fall 2005.With this piece, Bruce said he hopes to “make people more aware of the Bill of Rights, which is really an extraordinary text.” Using music as an American civics lesson comes naturally to Bruce, whose larger subject is American musical and national identity, as well as music in the public sphere. Perhaps his most ambitious piece, composed for the millennium, was “Convergence,” which involved musical bands of every description marching from different starting points in Manhattan and converging on Lincoln Center for a grand choral finale. (He has also released “The Bill of Rights” into the public domain.)The Sandisfield Arts Center seems an apt location for the performance of a piece that begins with the First Amendment to the Constitution. A national landmark, it has been both a church and a synagogue in the past. For this occasion, Bruce is writing some additional trumpet fanfares. His performers are drawn from throughout Connecticut, principally from Wesleyan University, where he is on the music faculty. “The Bill of Rights” will be performed at the Sandisfield Arts Center, 5 Hammertown Road in Sandisfield, on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 5 p.m. A community sing and cookout will follow. Tickets are $5. Reservations are requested. Call 413-258-4100 for reservations, information and directions, or go to www.sandisfieldartscenter.org. More information on the piece and the composer are available at www.neelybrucemusic.com.

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