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Naima Burrs hopes to play to Petersburg Symphony Orchestra’s strengths in new role

Kesha Williams | 2/17/2022, 6 p.m.
Petersburg Symphony Orchestra musicians are gearing up for a new season without the presence of a familiar face—Ulysses Kirksey, their ...

Petersburg Symphony Orchestra musicians are gearing up for a new season without the presence of a familiar face—Ulysses Kirksey, their former music director for more than 30 years.

With Mr. Kirksey’s death in August 2021, the orchestra has been working hard to regain its rhythm, according to Brian C. Little Sr., the PSO executive director.

The new season, which begins in March, will feature a new face on the conductor’s podium — Naima Burrs, a 31-year-old violinist and music instructor at Virginia State University. In late January, she was announced as PSO’s new music director.

Ms. Burrs, who was an assistant conductor for the PSO’s holiday concert last December at the Petersburg Public Library Auditorium, has served as assistant conductor of the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and, most recently, as conductor of the Hopkins Concert Orchestra.

She is the daughter of soprano Lisa Edwards Burrs, an associate professor of voice at Longwood University, and Stacy L. Burrs, former chief executive officer of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Jackson Ward and former deputy director of Venture Richmond.

Ms. Burrs said it’s a great time to grow the orchestra’s audience. From virtual concerts to concerts at various public venues, the PSO wants to give the community access to the music that inspires them. She said people shouldn’t feel as if they have to travel to bigger cities and larger venues to broaden their knowledge.

“While it’s important to do standard repertoire, there is so much beautiful music to choose from. We also can make sure (the public enjoys) composers who have not received their (due) recognition—music that showcases contributions of everyone—women, African- American, Hispanic composers and more,” Ms. Burrs said. “This is how we embrace the beauty of America throughout the season.”

Mr. Little said the PSO’s list of performances for 2022 will be released in March following the completion of a new website.

For the last 44 years, the PSO’s contingent of professional and volunteer musicians have thrilled music fans throughout the Tri-Cities. In a pandemic era where stress levels rise and fall by the day, Mr. Little said fans could benefit from the calming properties of live orchestra performances.

“We understand music creates a community that may feel like a social club, a place where people can call home, move away from their struggles, celebrate their triumphs,” he said.

“The symphony has done that. They have provided a place where 60 people can get together, create the oneness of music and sound.”

PSO violinist Lucretia Davis, a Virginia State University music graduate and orchestra director with Hanover County Public Schools, has performed an array of music with the orchestra since 2001. She is confident the PSO’s expansive library of music across genres will help expand the number of performances each year and to grow their audience base.

Like most orchestras, the PSO must maintain the favor of its loyal fans while promoting the music to new fans. Ms. Davis said strong music programs within school systems is key to attracting younger generations to orchestral music and related careers.

She said adult fans of the orchestra should bring youths to concerts where they will begin to see the music and concerts as life-long entertainment. Holding concerts beyond the walls of traditional concert halls has helped the PSO and other orchestras across the country. Ms. Davis recalled a series of past PSO concerts and a traditional holiday concert that helped them connect with their audiences.

“Tailoring programs is one of the strong points of the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. We, of course, have our die-hard PSO lovers who will enjoy anything we play, but you do have to program to really grow the audience” Ms. Davis said.

She said Mr. Kirksey was always keen with his musical programming for the PSO and selected works that would suit both the venue and the audience he was trying to attract and retain. She gave him high marks, too, for selecting music by local and nationally recognized artists.

“Now, it’s just the continued task of finding innovative ways to keep the audience’s attention,” Ms. Davis said. “I’m sure the new music director will carefully take her time, as well, and continue to thoughtfully prepare works that highlight the talents of the musicians, yet excite our audiences.”