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The daily newspaper of classical music



20 June 2003


Grace Notes

By Joe McLellan, classical music critic emeritus of The Washington Post



In recent years, I have lost my taste for symphonic pops programs on PBS. The reasons, I am sure, will be apparent on July 4 when the annual National Symphony Orchestra concert is televised live from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol

What began many years ago as a standard pops program started to deteriorate after it became an annual tradition on television and PBS began to get more and more control of the programming. Symphonic music became less and less important, the program was reoriented away from symphonic music toward Top 40 numbers and glitzy guest celebrity appearances. PBS, which normally shows more respect for its viewers' intelligence than any other network, clearly underestimates its audience's attention span and its taste for music outside the Top 40 pops.

The dumbing-down on PBS reached such a point that the "1812" Overture (classical Top 40, but that doesn't count) was cut back to just the final climax, leaving out the thematic confrontation between the "Marseillaise" and an old Russian Hymn. The "1812" Overture might have been wiped out entirely, except that it was a traditional introduction to the fireworks over the
Washington Monument, which became a primary feature of the show. Also eliminated were any traces of thematic coherence for the total program. And it was difficult to see any solid reason for having a symphony orchestra onstage, except that the program was originated by the orchestra.

None of these objections apply to a symphonic pops program scheduled to run on many PBS stations on June 25: "Cincinnati Pops: Patriotic Broadway." It is conducted by Erich Kunzel, who usually conducts the July 4 concert in
Washington, but he clearly has a lot more control in Cincinnati and that contributes enormously to the quality of the telecast. Not at all coincidentally, this intelligently organized program is produced not by PBS but by the orchestra and Brandenburg Productions.

Kunzel first conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1965 and became the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra when it was officially established in 1977. His intelligence, musicianship and sense of fun made him the true successor to Arthur Fiedler as
America's number one pops conductor. In an era when more pretentious orchestras have trouble getting a recording contract of any kind, Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops have continued to make three recordings per year - thoughtfully programmed, brilliantly played and stunningly recorded discs - on the Telarc label. Of their 73 Telarc recordings, 52 have appeared on the Billboard best-seller charts, more than any other orchestra can claim.

The material for Patriotic Broadway, as the title indicates, is drawn from the vast and varied material that has been written for American musicals, beginning with the intensely patriotic music of George M. Cohan and including material, familiar and unfamiliar, from such works as West Side Story, 1776, Ragtime, Shenandoah, Mr. President and Strike Up the Band. The singers include John Schneider, Tom Wopat and Denyce Graves, who has a half-dozen costume changes and looks and sounds gorgeous in all of them. Other performers include the U.S. Army Field Band Soldiers' Chorus, the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, the May Festival Chorus and the Musical Theatre Department of the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of music. The program includes a lot of first-class dancing as well as the songs and some purely instrumental music.

America" from West Side Story is played in a clever, wordless orchestral arrangement, evidently because some of the words are not exactly patriotic, and this point illustrates an important fact about the show's definition of patriotism: it does not focus on negative elements. Even in the super-patriotic George M. Cohan songs energetically sung by Schneider and Wopat, Cohan's tendency to make negative comparisons with other countries is bypassed. From beginning to end, the show's theme is the exuberant joy and pride of being a part of the American dream. There are shadows, of course, to set off the prevailing brightness, most notably a poignant performance by tenor Steven Morgan of "Mama, Look Sharp" from 1776, the monologue of a soldier dying on the battle field.

A comic highlight is Nick Clooney's imitation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in "Off the Record" from I'd Rather Be Right, complete with a long cigarette holder which he brandishes very expressively.

This show is a model of what a televised symphonic pops program should be. Those who want to see a patriotic TV musical program on July 4 might consider taping it and replaying it on the holiday.