Monday, May 29, 2017

National Memorial Day Concert, May 29, 2017 (PBS/WETA, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Sinister Minister I put on KPBS for the 29th annual National Memorial Day Concert — though the term “concert” probably should be put in quotes because whatever these annual extravaganzae are, they’re not “concerts” in any but the broadest sense of the term. They’re held annually on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. within eyeshot of all the war memorials in the place (including the preposterous one honoring the veterans of World War II, for which the architect’s renderings looked so over the top they were compared to Albert Speer and it was suggested that the only way this would be an appropriate World War II memorial would be if Germany had won — though frankly to me it looked less like an Albert Speer production than something MGM’s art department head, Cedric Gibbons, would have come up with for an Esther Williams water ballet), and the orchestra is Washington’s regular one, the National Symphony, conducted by Jack Everly, who took over the task when the concerts’ founding conductor, Erich Kunzel, died. What these “concerts” really are is performances by actors presenting real-life stories of heroism among America’s veterans and also tales of recovery from life-threatening injuries sustained in combat, often accompanied by mention of the loved ones that helped take care of the vets and nurse them back to a semblance of normal life. This content has so overwhelmed the musical numbers that after a stentorian opener sung by African-American baritone Christopher Jackson with a full chorus as well as the National Symphony, it was 20 minutes before we got another musical selection that wasn’t being narrated over. It also doesn’t help that the concert seems to get the same people to participate over and over: the hosts are Joe Mantegna (a regular) and Laurence Fishburne; Gary Sinise pre-taped his contribution because he’s witnessing the birth of his first grandchild, but as one of Hollywood’s few “out” Right-wingers he’s long been affiliated with this event; and some of the musical guests, notably singer Ronan Tynan (not a great singer but a genuinely heartfelt one), were also familiar from prior years. 

The first tribute segment was to Col. Richard Cole of what was, when he served, the U.S. Army Air Corps (it spun off into a separate service, the U.S. Air Force, after World War II), who’s 101 years old and the last survivor of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942. (Cole had an injury that kept him from the concert stage but we were assured he’s still all right.) Robert Patrick played Cole effectively against a montage of actual World War II clips. Then Fishburne introduced a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen and the five survivors of that quite compelling squadron were introduced on stage. After that the National Symphony Orchestra played a piece called “Commemoration” by Robert Wendell, and tenor Russell Watson sang a sappy inspirational song called “You Raise Me Up.” The next segment was one of the most compelling stories of the night: Luis Avila from Metairie, Louisiana, who had already done three tours in Iraq when he was sent to Afghanistan in 2011 and assigned a fourth which ended abruptly when an improvised explosive device (IED) blew up the armored vehicle his team were in and left him comatose for two years and with one less leg than nature’s design for him. The really moving part of his story was the sheer dedication of his wife to looking after him and working to bring him first out of his coma and then render him mobile and articulate. The Avilas were played by a real-life Latino/a acting couple, John and Ana Ortiz, while the orchestra played such standard “inspirational” works as the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” and the “Largo” from Dvorák’s “New World” symphony that eventually got turned into a faux spiritual, “Goin’ Home.” Later the Ortizes explained that a key part of Avila’s therapy had been playing him music, and he and his musical therapist, Robeson Vadrian (I think I scribbled down her name more or less correctly), made a subsequent appearance on the show. After the producers told the Avilas’ story, Renée Fleming, operatic superstar, was brought on to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” — a thoroughly pathetic (in both senses) piece of work — and then Ms. Vadrian and Luis Avila came out and joined her for “God Bless America.” Avila’s contributions were pretty toneless but still moving given all that he’s been through and how vividly we’d just seen it dramatized, and Vadrian got swamped by the world-class operatic voice on stage with her, but Fleming herself was audibly a lot more turned on by “God Bless America” than “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it showed. Afterwards a singer named John Radamzick who’s part of a group called Five for Fighting came out and did a song that variously seemed to be called “All for One” and “Together We’ll Rise,” which sounded strikingly like U2: the same sort of stentorian lead voice, the same clucking noises on guitar, the same aura of strained seriousness. 

After that we got Mary McCormack, the marvelous lead actress on the woefully short-lived (four seasons) USA Network TV series In Plain Sight about the federal witness protection program, playing Jacke (that’s how she spells her first name!) Walton, who waited 33 years for her father to return from Viet Nam alive or dead — she even had a letter she had written him when he was in country, which had been returned to her shortly before her mother was officially notified that he and his entire patrol had never returned from an operation — before his remains were finally found and she opened and re-read the letter she’d written him as a child. After that a country singer named Scottie McCreary came out to do a song called “In the Patch Between,” and then retired general and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, another “regular” on the Memorial Day concert stage, came out for a tribute to the late Jerry Colbert, who thought up the idea for these elaborate “concerts.” Then an unidentified bugler blew “Taps” as a memorial for all America’s war dead, and afterwards they introduced the current chair and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford and Paul Selva, as well as the usual medley of the songs of all the U.S. armed services (including not only the Coast Guard but even the National Guard — did you know the National Guard had an official theme song? Neither did I) before there was a sort of token bow to the whole idea of a world without war, with Vanessa Williams joining Patrick Lundy and a gospel choir called The Ministers of Music doing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” As an anti-war song it’s hardly at the level of, say, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but it’s a traditional piece and therefore “safe” enough for this context. The show closed with Christopher Jackson and the full forces returning for “America the Beautiful” — an uplifting ending to a show that remains perched uneasily between glorification of the U.S. military and its mission (and the many defense contractors who contribute to keeping this show on the air — Lockheed Martin is the lead sponsor and General Dynamics got a later plug) and an acknowledgment in some of the stories told of the human cost of war and how, while war may at times be a necessary evil, it is still evil.