Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Memorial Day Concert (PBS, May 27, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the latest so-called Memorial Day Concert special on PBS — an annual event that’s now in its 24th year and has long since shed any illusions of being a concert in the usual sense of the word. This morning I was looking at my comments on it from three years ago, when I watched the 2010 edition and there were still star performers on it singing songs that weren’t about the military, patriotism or public service. As the concerts have gone on the segments of people simply singing songs have shrunk to the point where they’ve virtually disappeared, and the parts that specifically pay tribute to the military, to the heroism of individual servicemembers and the dramatics of war have grown. The show was hosted by the usual crew — the MC’s were Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris also appeared — as, via a film clip from the 2004 event, did Charles Durning, who if he’d lived in the 1930’s probably would have become a star on the level of Edward G. Robinson. Alas, he came of age as a performer in the 1960’s and 1970’s, long after the day when character actors could become major stars. The big tearjerking veterans’ story was a fairly recent one, of two brothers, Eric and Joe Grenville from Cumberland, Pennsylvania, both of whom signed up for the National Guard and had the bad luck to enlist just two weeks before 9/11 and suddenly found themselves confronted with the fact that they were actually going to have to go out and fight real wars. Eric lost his leg in Iraq protecting other servicemembers from an IED; Joe made it through Afghanistan but then was turned down for a fourth tour and got so upset that he committed suicide. This was a fascinating story to be hearing on a show ostensibly devoted to a patriotic salute to the selflessness of America’s veterans and the nobility of their service — it was incredible that the show’s producers were acknowledging the reality both of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) itself and the fact that many veterans suffering from it don’t seek treatment because they think it would be dishonorable or somehow un-“manly” to do so. It’s also incredible that this show acknowledged that more veterans of the (second) Iraq war have killed themselves after they got home than have died in actual combat.

The remarkable soprano Katherine Jenkins returned (she did a duet with Andrea Bocelli on the 2010 show and totally out-sang him) for the “Pie Jesú” and a version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — a song Charles thought was very ironic because in its original context, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, it’s sung about a man who abused his wife, got killed committing a crime and returned from the grave to haunt her. It’s become a sort of monument to sappiness — at the height of the AIDS epidemic it became de rigueur at all the big benefits — and it’s probably indicative of how sugary Hammerstein’s lyrics are that my favorite version of all time was the first I ever heard, pianist Roger Williams’ instrumental of it. The most recent American Idol winner, Candace Glover, sang the national anthem, and she was followed up by Jessica Sanchez singing “God Bless America.” Alfie Bove sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables — at last! Someone singing this music who actually has a voice instead of a non-singing movie star aimed in the general direction of the correct pitches by AutoTune! — and the rest of the songs were all themed around service and loss, including Chris Mann’s “There Are Roads” and “You Raise Me Up” and tenor Roland Tynen’s “To Fallen Soldiers” (I’d like to hear him do something else sometime — like maybe the tenor part in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a far better piece of music on the same general theme) along with the usual medleys of marches and service songs. Jack Eberle, or whatever his name is — the person who took over conducting the concerts after their creator, Erich Kunzel, died after the one in 2009 — did a decent enough job in a program that mostly relegated the National Symphony to a backup band for the military melodramas (in the word’s literal meaning: a dramatic monologue accompanied by music) and the vocalists. It was an all too often bathetic but sometimes genuinely moving program.