Saturday, July 4, 2009

National Memorial Day Concert (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 20th annual National Memorial Day Concert, telecast on PBS May 24, 2009, was the usual mixed bag — I’ve set the DVD recorder to record tonight’s Capitol Fourth concert with the same sources, but something about me this morning wanted an early fix of patriotism, so here goes — it opened with a sappy version of the “safe” verses of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” so overarranged that one expected the Radio City Rockettes to come out any moment and start kicking (that distant rumble was Woody Guthrie turning over in his grave), and sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell, whom I used to like but whose voice has settled into an uncomfortable space between Paul Robeson’s and Boris Karloff’s, and who did an equally ghastly (if somewhat less relentlessly overarranged) version of “God Bless America” that had me longing for the resurrection of Kate Smith (or at least wishing that they’d just plugged in the famous film clip of her singing it from the 1943 movie This Is the Army).

Then they brought in operatic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” (just the first and most famous verse), and though the arrangement wasn’t all that impressive it was fascinating to hear her add an interpolated high note at the end: this song is hard enough to sing come scritto that I admired her chutzpah in making it even harder, and meeting her self-set challenge with gusto! After that violinist Robert McDuffie was brought on to play the Ashokan Farewell (a pre-existing piece that Ken Burns used as the theme for his documentary The Civil War) and Laurence Fishburne was brought on during it to read a letter President Lincoln wrote to the mother of a soldier killed in the Civil War.

Indeed, the theme of tonight’s concert was the losses from war, not only those killed but also those wounded and left permanently disabled (a Zeitgeist shift from the celebration of war in the post-9/11 Bush years to a consciousness of its horrible costs? I hope that was intentional! BTW, Michelle Obama was at the concert but the President wasn’t — there was an empty seat beside hers), the orchestra (the National Symphony under Erich Kunzel, who’s conducted all 20 of these concerts) played the theme from the movie Gettysburg, and then Denyce Graves came back for one of the high points of the evening, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she made absolutely wrenching despite yet another bombastic overarrangement.

Then they brought on Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang (one of the musicians the American Record Guide loves to hate — they’ve jokingly called him “Bang Bang,” though that doesn’t overly bother me because I rather like percussive piano players — which is probably why my favorite jazz pianists include the boogie-woogie guys as well as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols and Cecil Taylor — and Duke Ellington, especially when he played those loud, banging chromatic chords with which he used to kick-start his band musicians) for an excessively shortened version of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (basically what you would have heard if you had played the first and last side of a 78 rpm recording and just left out all six sides in the middle), following which he joined singer Katherine McPhee for a version of “America, the Beautiful” — her contribution was unexceptionable (though a major comedown after Graves’ spectacular “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and I couldn’t help wishing Graves had got to sing this, too) but his, in the middle of a singularly treacly orchestral arrangement, suggested he was getting in touch with his inner Liberace.

The next part of the concert was its most bizarre and affected portion, but also incredibly moving: a dialogue between actresses Dianne Wiest and Katie Holmes (the third Mrs. Tom Cruise) portraying the mother and sister, respectively, of José Pequeño, a New Hampshire man who left his job as police chief of one of the state’s small towns (the youngest police chief in the state) to join the Army and was critically injured when an insurgent threw a bomb into his Humvee while he was checking out a reported suicide bomber. The driver was killed instantly, and frankly after we learned what happened to Pequeño the driver seemed like the lucky one; he was rushed to a military field hospital and the doctors there removed two lobes of his brain, giving his head a sunken-in quality on his left side. He got a Veterans’ Administration disability pension but that went to his wife; mom and daughter assumed the full-time burden of caring for him, moving to Washington so they could be near the VA hospital in which he was being treated and giving up their home, their jobs, their incomes and their lives — they exhausted their savings and lived on ramen noodles for three months before sister finally found a temp job in the VA hospital so she could make some money while still being present in case her brother’s condition took a turn for the worse.

We were obviously supposed to admire these people and the incredible sacrifice they were making for their brother’s welfare — such as it is; his doctors regarded it as a miracle when he responded to his mother’s touch by actually saying, “Mom” (i.e., that he had to go through the maturation process all over again and had finally learned to pronounce the first syllable with which almost everyone starts to talk) — yet I found myself getting angrier and angrier as this segment progressed: angrier at the war itself — the sheer pointlessness of the sacrifice this poor young man with so much potential had made just to satisfy George W. Bush’s ego and the way his country had treated him (and at that he was getting better and more conscientious care from the VA than a lot of servicemembers who almost literally have been dumped out in the streets!) — and, let’s face it, at all war (and as I noted above, I credit the producers of this year’s Memorial Day concert for avoiding the implicit celebration of war that’s afflicted some of their previous concerts — though they did the obligatory medley of military service themes and had on the current head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and retired general Colin Powell for speeches, the general tenor of this show was much more sorrow at the losses from war than exultation of the military spirit).

The rest of the program was a bit anticlimactic after the haunting power of the Pequeño story: a sappy song called “When I Go the Distance” sung by the oddly sepulchral voice of Brian Stokes Mitchell; a montage of footage from previous National Memorial Day concerts to celebrate the 20th anniversary; an eerie song called “Bring Him Home” sung by Colm Wilkinson in an odd countertenor with such weird diction that it took me about half the first chorus to realize he was singing in English, not Gaelic — and then yet another jolting and welcome song, “Say a Prayer for Peace” by country star Trace Adkins (I’m taking their word for that since I’d never heard of him before, though judging from this powerful song I’d like to hear more!), which aside from being an intense piece of music in its own right (especially as projected by Adkins’ imposing Johnny Cash-ish baritone) was also a welcome denunciation of war and of that part of human nature that chooses to wage it and thereby forces other nations to engage in it to defend themselves. All in all a mixed bag, and yet a much more powerful and moving — and ideologically congenial, at least to me — concert than many of these previous affairs have been!