"While the storm clouds gather ... " Rosemary Clooney sang with the National Symphony Orchestra last night in the introduction to "God Bless America." And 60,000 pairs of eyes looked up nervously at the overcast skies above the West Lawn of the Capitol.
The possibility of rain falling on "The First Annual National Memorial Day Concert" remained from the opening "Yankee Doodle," performed by the U.S. Army Fife and Drum Corps in Revolutionary War uniforms, through the final medley of songs associated with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. But that possibility seemed less ominous once the voice of James Earl Jones boomed out "Fellow citizens," and Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" was launched. If there is a voice in the world that can scare away storm clouds, that voice belongs to Jones. The rain stayed away and the audience won the gamble that had brought it out for the National Symphony's first outdoor concert of the season.
There was something pretentious in the title given to the event by PBS, which televised it live and will repeat it at 2 p.m. today on WETA, Channel 26. This is by no means the first Memorial Day concert given by the NSO at the Capitol, merely the first on television. It did, however, set a fine precedent and example for the coordination of music with video images. This element, like the musical excellence of the program and its unusual thematic cohesiveness, seems to be largely the work of conductor Erich Kunzel, America's premier conductor of pops concerts.
"The way we celebrate Memorial Day in the United States is to go to the beach; we treat it as the beginning of summer," Kunzel said in a pre-concert interview. "But it is a day for us to celebrate those who have died in all our wars. ... We are free to go to the beaches because those guys fought and died for us."
This sentiment was echoed by host E.G. Marshall in his running commentary on the concert. "We honor all who have died for this nation and all who have risked death," he said at the beginning of the concert, and "we will never fully comprehend your gift, but we will never forget that you have given it" at the end. The program was made up of music associated with America's wars from the Revolution ("Yankee Doodle") through Vietnam (Barber's Adagio for Strings, which was in the "Platoon" soundtrack). Highlights in between included "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (sung by Sgt. 1st Class Alvey Powell with the U.S. Army Chorus) and "A Lincoln Portrait" for the Civil War; a George M. Cohan medley sung by Sgt. 1st Class Evelyn Yount for World War I; the theme from "The Longest Day" and an excerpt from "Victory at Sea" for World War II; and the Korean folk song "Ari Rangi," sung by Staff Sgt. Myung H. Yoon, for the Korean War.
The visuals were highly effective in some parts of the program, notably the Mathew Brady photos used in the Civil War segment and combat footage with "The Longest Day" and "Victory at Sea." Brady photos and shots of the Lincoln Memorial, together with the eloquence of Jones, gave fresh meaning and impact to the tired words and music of "A Lincoln Portrait."
But perhaps the most moving moment was the reading, by Colleen Dewhurst, of a letter left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by the mother of a soldier. While the camera panned over the reactions of people visiting the monument and slowly moved in on the soldier's carved name, William R. Stocks, with Barber's Adagio playing, Dewhurst read the mother's words: "I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name. ... I used to wonder how scared and homesick you must have been in that strange country. ... I would rather have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all. Mom."