The Fourth of July, Just a Little Early
Published: July 2, 2010
The New York Philharmonic’s Summertime Classics program “Strike Up the Band,” on Thursday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, while stopping well short of that extreme, skillfully avoided any hint of Russian triumphalism. Still, there was some confusion of nationalities.
Like all concerts in the Summertime Classics series, this was conducted by Bramwell Tovey, an Englishman. (So who did win the War of 1812?) Mr. Tovey said in his patter that he was “just here yet again to apologize” for British treatment of the colonies. And if he sang “God Save the Queen” to the clamorous strains of “America” in Carmen Dragon’s hectic medley “Memories of America” (so many tunes, a mere 12 minutes’ time), which opened the concert, only the players would know, and he could be forgiven.
With the Fourth of July still days off, Mr. Tovey, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony, noted that it was in fact Canada Day. There were no tributes to that Frenchish nation here, but the French themselves were cast in a more sympathetic light than in “1812.”
Except for the rudely honking taxi drivers: Mr. Tovey led a jaunty account of Gershwin’s “American in Paris,” with fine solos from Sheryl Staples, the concertmaster, and Philip Smith, the principal trumpeter. For Randol Bass’s “Esprit du Tour,” of 2006, a lively tribute to another American in Paris, the bicyclist Lance Armstrong, the Philharmonic was joined by the United States Military Academy Band, which shared the program.
But the most meaningful French connection came with John Philip Sousa’s “Hail to the Spirit of Liberty,” performed by the band under its conductor, Lt. Col. Timothy J. Holtan. The work was written in 1900 for the Exposition Universelle in Paris and the unveiling there of Paul Wayland Bartlett’s equestrian statue of the Marquis de Lafayette brandishing his sword in support of the American Revolution.
Another subtheme of the evening was the use of unusual percussion instruments. In Sousa’s “National Game,” of 1925, performed by the combined forces under Mr. Tovey, two baseball bats were struck together repeatedly as an eccentric, topical wood block.
But the real surprise came in Morton Gould’s Symphony No. 4 (“West Point”), a work written for the West Point band in 1952 and performed by it here under Colonel Holtan. As Sgt. First Class Jason Ham, a euphonium player in the band, explained from the stage, Gould’s idea, inspired partly by the cemetery on the West Point grounds, was to evoke the Long Gray Line, the generations of Army soldiers on parade.
A somber first movement, “Epitaphs,” gives way to the second and last, “Marches.” At one point a marching machine, a wooden contraption, is deployed to depict the clomping of multitudes, and the effect was deeply moving.
Also moving was a performance of Master Sgt. Douglas Richard’s “Armed Forces Service Medley,” of 2005, during which members of the audience and of both orchestras who had served in the military were invited to stand as they heard the themes of their respective branches.
Surely, the only way to end such a program was with Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and Mr. Tovey conducted both groups in a barn-burner. And the only possible encore was another performance of “Stars and Stripes,” this time with Colonel Holtan on the podium.
However in or out of fashion patriotism may be at the moment, this concert held an almost full house in thrall.