"I want to do it," Richard Adler begged Lee Iacocca, chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. "I need to do it. Just let me do it." And so he did.
Adler's noncommissioned but eagerly welcomed tribute to the Statue of Liberty on its 99th anniversary received its world premiere and a standing ovation last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, with Gunther Herbig conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Titled "The Lady Remembers: The Statue of Liberty Suite," it is a suitable tribute to the world's most prominent piece of pop sculpture.
Adler, who is probably best known as the composer of "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees," often thinks in eight-bar phrases. He has recently been composing for symphony orchestras such works as "Memory of a Childhood," "Restrospectrum" and "Yellowstone." His newest work -- a lightweight, nostalgic musical look at the American immigrant experience -- is full of ethnic rhythms and pleasant melodies and motifs, expertly orchestrated and composed in a musical grammar that encompasses the idioms of jazz and Broadway as well as (and somewhat more than) the traditional classics. Its seven movements span more than 40 minutes -- perhaps a bit much for its rather simple contents and structures. It is unlikely to enter the standard orchestral repertoire. But as a ceremonial piece for a gala occasion, the formally clad audience clearly enjoyed it.
The program opened with Stravinsky's brief, brash "Greeting Prelude," a variation on the familiar "Happy Birthday to You" melody, and continued with the evening's most substantial piece of music, Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. Both are, of course, exquisitely suitable for a birthday tribute to the sculpture that has been welcoming immigrants to New York for the past 99 years.
The Detroit Symphony sounds about the way the National Symphony did 10 years ago. It is a competent orchestra, if not flawless in technique or ravishing in tone. Its wind players, who were kept quite busy throughout the evening, gave some fine performances along with a few small slips. Although he was born in Czechoslovakia (of Austrian parents), Herbig's interpretation of Dvorak sounded more German than Czech: lyric rather than dramatic, somewhat understated in rhythmic vitality and dynamic contrasts, but rising to satisfactory energy levels at the appropriate moments.
Julia Migenes-Johnson sang briefly in the fourth, pivotal movement of the Adler work: a rather old-fashioned, pop-flavored song that began with an adaptation of the familiar verse "Give me your tired, give me your poor," and ended with the names of all the states in the order of their entry into the union. She sang well, but the performance added nothing to the reputation she has earned at the Metropolitan Opera and in the movie "Bizet's Carmen."