National Anthems and Home Openers
Baseball is moving into the postseason, and the classical music world is moving through its annual wave of home openers. The common link between these two events: the National Anthem, heard at home openers in the concert hall, and always, of course, at the ballpark.
In my review of the NSO's opening gala, I observed the anthem's omission, which led one commenter to ask how common such an omission was. The only rule appears to be that I don't know when to expect it. The NSO did indeed play the National Anthem the following week at its first regular-season concert, before the Beethoven Pastoral.
Does it have a place? It can seem slightly odd. The concert hall is aglitter with expensive evening gowns and tails; the audience is seated; the lights go down; the conductor comes out; and suddenly the lights come up and everyone stands up, as if in school, and sings along. Then the "real" music starts. I love the National Anthem, but in this context it always feels like an abrupt change of mood.
(read more after the jump)
Part of the issue is the slight uncertainty about whether this music is part of the performance, or a ritual observed before the performance. Leonard Slatkin came up with a creative twist during the "Journey to America" festival in 2002 by conducting two different arrangements of the anthem -- by Ormandy, Dorati, Stokowski, and other musical notables who were not born in this country -- on each program. No question, there, but that it was part of the main event.
And one of the most memorable performances of the anthem I've ever heard in my life was by Zdenek Macal and the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra in the weeks following 9-11. It was stirring and powerful and extremely moving: there was a sense, usually so easy to forget, of what this piece was actually about.
Last spring, just before Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela came to town, I was talking to a friend who mentioned how much her father hated the playing of the National Anthem before concerts; it irritated him so much that it could even spoil the evening for him. A few days later, we both attended the Dudamel concert, and started laughing to ourselves, in different parts of the hall, when Dudamel led not only the American national anthem, but the Venezuelan one, as well. Of course, this was perfectly in keeping with the soccer-stadium excitement of the Dudamel/Bolivar concerts, continuing through to the warm-up jackets in the Venezuelan national colors the orchestra donned at the end.
I won't even get into the musical challenges of the piece: the way, for example, an auditorium full of people singing lustily away generally gets a lot quieter when the song gets to the "rockets' red glare," which rises beyond the vocal range of a lot of the singers. Or the occupational hazards of forgetting the words, which the tenor Lawrence Brownlee invoked, rather nervously, before he sang the anthem before a game at Nationals Stadium in September. "I've done it a gazillion times," he said. "But the National Anthem is one of those things where you can't [bring] notes. You can't write [the words] on your hand."
Brownlee got through it without incident, and pretty terrifically.
And here, courtesy of YouTube, are some other notable anthems:
I was sorry not to find a better recording of the late Robert Merrill, who was veritably the voice of the New York Yankees' anthems for years. All I located was this rather wobbly recording of a recording made on opening day at the new Yankee Stadium.
And here's a historic one: the New York Philharmonic plays the National Anthem in Pyongyang, North Korea.
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