Amid a Burst of Fireworks & Pride, Holiday Music, Alas, Often Fizzles

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Afriend of mine was very fond of an invented parlor game he called "The Worst Records Never Made." It was usually played late at night, in half-deserted bars near Carnegie Hall or Tanglewood, where music critics would gather to drink, dish and argue the merits and demerits of concerts recently heard.

The idea behind this game was to hypothesize the most dazzlingly inappropriate recordings we could imagine -- teamings of artists and material that would be so truly horrific that even the major labels would never consider making them. Most of our inspirations have been lost to memory, but the very idea of discs such as "The Three Tenors Sing Gilbert and Sullivan," "The Berlin Philharmonic Plays Led Zeppelin" and (my favorite) "The Chipmunks Present Your Favorite Spirituals" can still inspire what P.G. Wodehouse used to call "the raised eyebrow, the sharp intake of breath."

I'm sure that some classical music lovers will look similarly askance at the National Symphony Orchestra's Wednesday night program on the Mall, titled "A Capitol Fourth 2007" and consisting of what its producers call "an unrivaled evening of patriotic and uplifting music followed by a stunning display of fireworks."

According to the press release, "veteran actor Tony Danza will host a star-studded show that will feature performances from some of the country's best known and award-winning musical artists including recording artist Elliott Yamin ('American Idol'), Grammy award-winning gospel legend Yolanda Adams, Tony award-winner Bebe Neuwirth ('Chicago,' 'Cheers'), country music sensation Dierks Bentley, and star of the hit series 'Heroes' Hayden Panettiere with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of top pops conductor Erich Kunzel."

The only purely classical music promised for the program is Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," complete with live cannon fire.

Chipmunks, anyone?

All right, all right. Such a blanket dismissal is probably unfair, for the notion of crossover music is hardly a new one. Mozart heard his works played by organ grinders in the streets of Prague. One hundred years ago, tenor Enrico Caruso and John McCormack were recording popular songs of their native lands (Italy and Ireland, respectively) as well as operatic classics. And the tradition of orchestral "pops" concerts dates back at least to the mid-19th century, in Paris, London, Vienna and other cultural capitals. Anybody inclined to flare elevated nostrils at the thought of cross-fertilization between musical genres could stand a history lesson.

And, in truth, Wednesday's program is not all about music. Rather, it is a chance to congregate in the spiritual heart of the United States, on the anniversary of its founding, with a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a favorite thou or two. Would this particular middle-aged music critic be more interested in a program that began with Hans Pfitzner's three recondite preludes from "Palestrina," went on to the Double Concerto, a particularly dense and challenging piece by America's composer Methuselah, Elliott Carter (still active at 99), and concluded with Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9? Well, sure -- and I'll bet that if I searched long enough, I'd find a couple of dozen people who might agree with me.

But "A Capitol Fourth" is expected to attract tens of thousands to the Mall and will be telecast live on PBS throughout the country and to U.S. military personnel throughout 175 countries. And Pfitzner, Carter and Bruckner are not exactly crowd-pleasers, at least not on this level of popular acclaim.

No, that would be the wrong music for such a celebration, about as appropriate as "The Lady Is a Tramp" would be at a wedding or "Gaite Parisienne" at a funeral. After all, the context in which music is heard is crucial. The political prankster Dick Tuck used to inform bandleaders that Richard Nixon's favorite song was Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife," and so the candidate would be put in the embarrassing position of taking the stage to lines such as "The shark has pretty teeth, dear" -- a toe-tapping ditty about a mass murderer that somehow made the American hit parade not once but twice.

Then there was a famous incident at a Democratic convention some years ago. As any political junkie knows, it is customary for the house band to break into a song closely associated with home turf when a state delegation is announced from the podium. (New York might be represented by "Sidewalks of New York," for example, or California by "California, Here I Come!") But a problem arose when the Georgia delegation was recognized and a hapless bandleader struck up "Marching Through Georgia." As it happens, this is no cheery advertisement but rather a Yankee Civil War song about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's scorched-earth assault on the South, and the Georgians were decidedly annoyed.

Suppose you wanted to make a program of American classical music that would both draw an audience and fit the mood of the evening. Well, you could go with some of the more populist works of Aaron Copland ("Rodeo," "Appalachian Spring"), perhaps, or George Gershwin -- but what would you play next year? Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" straddles the line between musical theater and classical music -- and indeed there will be a tribute to the score on Wednesday to celebrate its 50th anniversary. (Those once-menacing Sharks and Jets would now be in their late 60s or 70s.) What about jazz and rock, America's two great original contributions to world music? Well, jazz needs an orchestra about as much as a discotheque needs Gregorian chant.

And it was the very specificity of early rock recordings -- the fused, symbiotic relationship between artist and song -- that changed our understanding of popular music. Traditional standards such as "Stormy Weather" and "As Time Goes By" were designed to be played in a wide variety of arrangements, by vastly divergent artists. But when we wanted to hear "I Want to Hold Your Hand," we wanted to hear it done by the Beatles, not by Arthur Fiedler. This was music that simply didn't need -- and in fact, was usually sapped by -- the lush sounds of an orchestra.

In the early '90s, a brief fad for orchestral augmentations of songs by popular bands proved a flatulent disaster. Poor Jerry Hadley, an impressive American tenor, was called upon to croon "Sympathy for the Devil" on something called "Symphonic Rolling Stones," leaving one with a new respect for Mick Jagger. Orchestral "transformations" of songs by the Moody Blues, Yes and other ensembles were equally repellent. One had the sense that these releases were aimed at the uncomfortably middle-aged who were somehow embarrassed by their early fondness for this music and so needed to hear it "classicized." It was rather like slapping a leather binding on an old copy of Mad magazine.

So we shall hear what we shall hear on Wednesday night. If the weather is good, and you want to celebrate July 4 with thousands of your friends and neighbors, make your way to "A Capitol Fourth." My guess is that you'll have a good time -- and that you'll want to play some music when you get home.

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