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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:

Glenn Donellen, the NSO violinist I wrote about on the Fourth of July who made a violin out of a baseball bat, finally did play the anthem at a Nats game this summer.

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.

By Anne Midgette  |  October 6, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Maybe we should adopt the British practice of playing the Anthem at the end of the concert. It would have the practical value of getting people to their feet to leave the hall and not upstage the main event.

Posted by: wsheppard | October 6, 2009 7:29 AM | Report abuse

At the BSO home opener, a bunch of people gave me backward glances while I was singing the national anthem (in the audience). I don't think I was singing *that* badly. People, face front and sing.

I think the national anthem is pretty pointless before most classical concerts, even the home openers. But if it's playing, I'll definitely sing along.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | October 6, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I find nothing more heartening and touching than hearing our national anthem played by a full orchestra with an audience of thousands singing along...and I love the opportunity to actually get to sing along with the orchestra (something I usually only get to do in my car while listening to a CD).

It is always one of my favorite parts of the season (and I'm not even what you would call "patriotic"!).

Posted by: gmusicchic | October 6, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

I think the Anthem should have been played at the gala, not at the first regular concert of the season.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 6, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

"I love the National Anthem, but in this context it always feels like an abrupt change of mood." I could not agree more with these words of Anne Midgette. I was not expecting the National Anthem at the NSO's recent Beethoven/Bartok concert. After the orchestra tuned up and Maestro Fischer made his entrance, I settled in with the expectation of hearing the gentle opening strains of the Pastoral Symphony. I was jarred by the sight of the musicians suddenly rising to their feet and facing "me" -- okay, facing the audience; the sense of aggreesiveness that was projected was probably heightened by the fact that I was sitting in the 5th row. Our National Anthem can move me to tears when I hear it on certain occasions. This time it felt all wrong, and moved me only to a mild fit of grumpiness, further aggravated by the annoying rustling sounds of everyone getting resettled in their seats, fiddling with their programs, etc., as the first piece on the program started. My cranky mood quickly disspiated after a few bars of Beethoven, but still. By all means, NSO, play the National Anthem on the 4th of July, or in Pyongyang or other special occasions. But let's avoid the overkill. Even where patriotism is concerned, sometimes less can be more.

Posted by: tedloud | October 6, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for addressing my question, Anne. As you may have guessed, I think it's a nice tradition.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | October 6, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

When I was a subscriber to the Baltimore Opera, I enjoyed hearing the national anthem played on opening night. It was probably the only place in the state of Maryland where one could hear it without the moronic "O!" which is always injected into it.

Of course, I've been an Oriole hater for nearly 50 years, so this might color my opinion ;)

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | October 6, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I have dreams of one day having enough money to buy a sports team and forbidding the national anthem being played. Just play the game. I feel the same with concert performances. They're generally marches, usually militaristic, and typically came to become popular when nationalist feelings were rampant in the late 1800s and early 1900s... when we had the deadliest and costliest of wars between great nations.

Posted by: prokaryote | October 6, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I tend to agree with prokaryote about the interjection of patriotic songs into weird venues- but perhaps I'm just bitter because my own nation's anthem was written (this is not a jest) by committee and is not 1/4 as stirring.

Although not the anthem, I attended the otherwise surprisingly excellent CHORUS by Houston Grand Opera and after the curtain calls they brought up the houselights for everyone to sing 'America the Beautiful'. Perhaps its because I'm not American, but I found it a jarringly sentimental way to end what had been a musically exciting and adventurous evening (a 12 minute extract from Khovaschina! formation marching to the Hallelujah Chorus!) and a strange way to send the audience out into the night.

Posted by: ianw2 | October 6, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

"but perhaps I'm just bitter because my own nation's anthem was written (this is not a jest) by committee and is not 1/4 as stirring."

Well now you have to say what country's anthem, don't you?

But you bring up a good point. In a city as international as DC is, it must be pretty off-putting to have to hear the anthem at so many events. I would think it validates the impression so many foreigners have about us too.

I'd have less of a problem with the national anthem if it were only being played during war time, as described in this article. But only during wars declared by Congress.

Posted by: prokaryote | October 7, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I look forward to the National Anthem at the first of the season series and would have been disappointed if they had played it at the gala instead. This has been the case for me for the past 30 years and I would miss it if it went away. And since I was expecting it, it didn't startle me but instead welcomed me home.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | October 9, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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