Monday, May 30, 2016

National Memorial Day Concert (PBS, May 29, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the National Memorial Day Concert on the lawn of the Capitol mall in Washington, D.C. (the first time I’d seen this show under the new “all-digital” regime of Cox Communications that does not allow me to record to videotape or DVD and therefore forces me either to watch everything in real time as it airs or spend a lot of extra money on a cable bill my husband already thinks is too high for what we’re getting), which was considerably better than usual. In previous years I’ve complained that the music-to-talk ratio on these events was skewed way too much towards talk instead of music; this time the two were in alignment. The main musical guests were the Beach Boys, or what’s left of them by now — Mike Love was clearly present and leading the group, and I think Al Jardine was there but I don’t think it had any of the other surviving original members (and after their 50th anniversary tour that produced a two-CD live album that was actually quite good, and included all the survivors from the 1960’s editions of the group, Love and Brian Wilson had another one of their public feuds). Still, they were in good form and they actually got to play a mini-set instead of just being trotted out for one song. They played “Good Vibrations” (with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jack Everly — who took over the Washington, D.C.-based orchestra’s pop concerts when Erich Kunzel passed — coming in on the final bars), “California Girls,” “Sloop John B.” (accompanied by some odd footage of U.S. servicemembers surfing at China Beach in Viet Nam in 1968 — how Apocalypse Now!), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”

That was, predictably, the high point of the program; the promos also featured the opera singer Renée Fleming but she only got to do one number, the old Quaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The one time I’d heard this song before was on the 1962 KPFA LP that featured Pete Seeger singing it, and his sincerity and straightforwardness made the song seem quite beautiful — even though I’ve been told by Charles and other long-time Quakers that this song gets sung at so many of their services (“meetings,” they call them) they’re bored with it and jokingly call it “How Can I Keep from Snoring?” Fleming’s version was surprisingly dull except for some parts where she got to sing wordlessly and do some coloratura ornamentation — there are probably some folk songs and pop hymns that would have inspired her more than this one. It began with the latest (and last!) American Idol winner, Trent Herman — a nice-looking white guy with a stentorian voice — doing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and negotiating that killer of a melody better than some more highly-regarded singers have done — and went on to Katharine McPhee, a statuesque white blonde with a big voice that sounds something like Adele’s (I can just imagine the call to Central Casting on that one: “Find us an American Adele!”), doing a medley of “America, the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Charles had expressed the wish before the show that it would mention the origins of the Memorial Day holiday as “Decoration Day” after the Civil War (and if the programmers had really been adventurous they would have had Everly and the National Symphony play the “Decoration Day” movement from Charles Ives’ Holidays symphony!), and to some extent they did.

Among the talking segments were actor Esai Morales narrating a segment about the founding of Arlington National Cemetery — which was done in 1868 because so many of the Civil War dead had been buried more or less where they had fallen, their graves marked either with crude wooden stakes (in the contemporary photo shown to accompany the segment they look oddly like human bones) or nothing at all, and the government at the time decided the fallen Civil War veterans deserved a proper cemetery. The segment continued with actress S. Epatha Merkerson (whose name I’d always thought was pronounced with both “a”’s short — which made “Epatha” sound like “Ipecac” — but she was announced here with the first “a” long) reading the story of Paula Davis, whose son Justin had always wanted to be an Army Ranger and who was killed in Afghanistan, following which country star Trace Adkins sang a bizarre but oddly moving song called “Arlington,” in which he takes the point of view of a young man who got killed in a war and is proud that he got to join his veteran grandfather in the national cemetery. “I made it to Arlington,” he boasts — Charles thought the song was so spooky he asked if Stephen King had written the lyrics, but I was haunted and moved by the piece and its strangeness didn’t bother me. After that there was a sequence about Viet Nam in which war footage was accompanied by the National Symphony playing Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (which has become the quasi-official soundtrack for the Viet Nam war since Oliver Stone used it so hauntingly in his film Platoon) and the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” (only instrumentally, which was a pity — it would have made a better song for Renée Fleming than “How Can I Keep from Singing?”) as Gary Sinise narrated the story of Jack Farley, who served in combat in Viet Nam, lost his right leg there (though there was a slip-up in that the photo that accompanied part of the narration showed a view from behind of a man in military uniform missing his left leg) and had to struggle with multiple operations to get at least some mobility back, and complains that they still can’t give him a prosthetic leg that actually fits. The segment closed with the National Symphony playing, not a masterpiece, but a mediocre selection called “Honor” by the Room Man, film composer Hans Zimmer (“Zimmer” means “room” in German) — that’s the Memorial Day concert for you: I hoped for Charles Ives and got Hans Zimmer!

Then they trotted out Colin Powell — interestingly introduced as “General” rather than “Secretary of State” (he’s been in the news again lately because the State Department inspector-general’s report on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails mentioned that Powell also kept some of his State Department e-mails on a private server, but drew the distinction that Hillary Clinton was the only Secretary of State who’s served during the e-mail era who kept all her e-mails on a private server and never set up an official .gov account at all) — for an anodyne speech about how it’s important to listen to veterans’ stories in order to help them heal. Fortunately the Beach Boys followed him and, as I noted above, got to do five whole songs instead of just being trotted out for one or two numbers. After that came the most fascinating narration of the night: Gary Sinise telling the story of the Allies’ disastrous campaign at Anzio Beach in Italy in early 1944 (they landed in January and established a beachhead almost immediately, then were pinned down for four months by German machine gunners and planes before they finally broke out) and in particular the story of Alton “Nappy” Knappenburger, who had a Browning automatic rifle and in one horrific day of combat managed to use it to take out some of the German machine gunners — he was thinking only of saving his own life but he ended up killing 60 Germans and winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. This time the accompaniment Jack Everly chose was the beautiful “Largo” movement from Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony (it’s probably only coincidental that this was the favorite piece of music of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the famous theme, later abstracted as a pseudo-spiritual called “Goin’ Home,” was played at his funeral), and the segment led to one of the buglers from the U.S. Army Trumpet Corps playing “Taps.” Renée Fleming came on after that, and then it was time to introduce the commanders of the various branches of the U.S. military (including the National Guard) as their branches’ theme songs were played. (You didn’t know the National Guard had a theme song? Me neither.)

The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dumford, made a short speech and then came the final song of the evening, Broadway singer Alfie Boe (I couldn’t help joke, “What’s it all about, Alfie Boe?,” before I realized he’s probably been getting that all his life) singing Bob Dylan’s song “Forever Young.” Of course I couldn’t resist the comment that for anyone (like me) who grew up in the 1960’s, the idea of anyone at a patriotic concert singing something by someone as resolutely anti-war as Bob Dylan would have been mind-boggling — and Charles couldn’t resist one of his snippy jokes about Bob Dylan’s voice (or alleged lack thereof), saying that his version was probably just two or three notes. “Let’s just say that Alfie Boe is singing all the notes Dylan wrote, if not the ones he actually sang,” I said — and Boe managed to turn the song into a surprisingly effective power ballad. After that the concert wrapped up with the whole cast and chorus joining in on Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The National Memorial Day Concert is one of those events that jumbles up an acknowledgment of veterans and a thank-you for the sacrifices they’ve made with all too much justification for what they’ve actually done — one can appreciate the service veterans have made and the way at least some of the U.S.’s wars have genuinely been at least in part to “preserve our freedom,” as the militarists claim, yet one can also do a lot of questioning of what we’ve actually had these poor men (and women, now — one of the most startling images in the show was of a woman in combat in one of the U.S.’s most recent wars) do and just what we’ve asked them to sacrifice for. At the same time the footage and photographs of actual combat underscore once again how horrible war is — is there anyone out there who still believes war is a noble enterprise? War and the military may be necessary evils, but they’re evil nonetheless and the only reason they need to exist is the unscrupulousness of some people, movements and nations in the world who only want to conquer and destroy. One can appreciate the sacrifices made by  veterans (and get incensed when they get screwed over by their own government, particularly by agencies like the Veterans’ Administration that are supposed to help them) without endorsing either the overall concept of war or the specific wars they served in!