ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- It was summertime and the listening was easy Saturday, June 28 at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park. It was a perfect night for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s annual Celebrate America program of patriotic music. Freshman conductor Joseph Young took the baton for his first ASO concert since being named assistant conductor at the beginning of the month. He is also music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra.
He has led a distinguished career since graduating a decade ago from the University of South Carolina (also the alma mater of Darius Rucker, the artist formerly known as Hootie). He cut a dapper figure in black shirt and white dinner jacket and marshalled the forces for a program of perennial favorites for the occasion of celebrating all that’s great about America.
After a rousing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” during which he faced and conducted us, he kicked right into Copland’s Rodeo. Motif? It was what was for dinner, for he rounded up the first half of the concert with John Williams’ “Overture to ‘The Cowboys.’”
Across our fair land, doth any celebration of our nation’s independence not trot out at least one John Philip Sousa march? Methinks not. Next on the program was the first of two of the March King’s most popular struts. Young led with “The Washington Post.” One of the first of Sousa's 136 marches, it was commissioned by his hometown newspaper. Its rousing cadence had hands clapping and toes tapping from the front of the stage to the back of the lawn.
Being the new guy, he said he tried to think of a piece that would convey that feeling of men bravely and proudly marching to war -- something that has been a military tradition since martial music’s genesis in fife and drum. He said he could only think of one. Chuckles broke out as the soon-familiar bombast of John Williams’ “The Imperial March” from "Star Wars" was recognized.
Next on the docket was the most famous whistling song ever. Sorry, Opie, it’s the “Colonel Bogey March,” written in 1914, but immortalized in the 1957 film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The fact that just the sheet music of the tune went gold (selling one million copies) in the infancy of radio is nothing short of astounding.
The most surprising part of the lineup was the introduction of James Reese Europe, the foremost African-American musician in New York City. He was known as the “Martin Luther King of Music.”
In 1912, he made history when his Clef Club was the first group to play jazz at Carnegie Hall. This is even more amazing when you compare that to Benny Goodman’s first concert there 26 years later. He was a contemporary of Scott Joplin, and there are definitely familiar signatures in common.
A favorite of military families is the tradition of playing each branch’s anthem and asking veterans and family members to stand and sing (if they know the words), but at least clap along and enjoy a nice round of cheers from the crowd in appreciation for their service.
After the break, the misnomered “Bugler’s Holiday” by Leroy Anderson gave three of the ASO’s finest trumpet players a chance to show off front and center with the demanding piece.
Now for a bit of trivia: What is the most recorded song in history? If you thought “Yesterday,” think again. It’s “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” And who was the lyricist of this most popular song? Ira Gershwin? Nope. It was DuBose Heyward, author of the book “Porgy” and collaborator with George and Ira on the only opera featuring African-Americans.
Ira did write most of the lyrics for the opera, but “Summertime” sprang solely from the mind and pen of Heyward. Though Ira was granted co-author credit by ASCAP, Stephen Sondheim acknowledges the words as coming exclusively from Heyward, and deems them the finest lyrics in musical theater.
It’s a song that cuts a swath across so many types of music – opera, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, funk, pop, and even hip-hop. It was an inspired choice for Charleston native Joseph Young, and I doubt there could ever be a more faithful reading than what we were treated to.
A blend of Negro spiritual and Ukrainian lullaby, it hits the sweet spot for countless artists and listeners, but too often fails to capture the languid and lyrical vibe that Young paced. Bravo, sir!
Somehow, “The 1812 Overture,” written by Russian Pyotr Tchaikovsky, portraying the Pyrrhic victory that the French aggressors achieved in taking Moscow, has become inextricably associated with American Independence, which of course, the French were instrumental in securing. Whatever! We love it and can’t seem to celebrate without it.
It was amusing to see on the screen projected large enough to notice one of the violinists reseating her earplugs just as the troops were entering Moscow with “The Marseillaise” looming in the distance. We all knew that those tubular bells behind them were just about to be hammered in the testosterone-fueled finale with the most robust brassing off in the orchestral canon.
It's great to hear the ASO in their "summer home" at least once during the summer. Let's all get busy lobbying the ASO to get the orchestra out here for the rest of the summer next year! With 25 Grammys to their credit, we are blessed to have such a world-class symphony to call our own.