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Kentucky Symphony Salutes Veterans Day with Moving Tribute

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 15, 2010 - 12:59:55 AM in reviews_2010


The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra’s Veterans Day salute, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” Saturday night in the Notre Dame Academy's Francis K. Carlisle Performing Arts Center in Park Hills, had everything:

 It had Francis Scott Key, Walt Whitman, “Taps,” “Over There,” “God Bless America,” “Victory at Sea” and “America the Beautiful," among others.  It had quotes from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, bagpiper Chris McLennan, the 45-voice KSO Chorale, baritone Jonathan Stinson and vocalists Jerome Doerger, Brooke Rucidlo and Rodney McGhee.  It had a color guard from chapter 71 of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Aurora, Indiana and a full house, including veterans from all branches of the service.

On the podium was the KSO’s genuinely heroic music director James R. Cassidy, who most likely conceived the idea, planned the show, recruited the participants, made the arrangements and did a lion’s share of the hands-on work himself, including preparing the PowerPoint show (which he admitted to).  (As he quipped at one point, having carried a music stand and microphone onstage for the soloists, “they have people who do this in other places.”)

Part one was a chronological retrospective of music associated with America’s wars.  First up was William Billings’ Revolutionary War anthem, “Chester,” adapted by American composer William Schuman for his 1956 “New England Triptych.”  It was an evocative performance, beginning with just woodwinds and continuing kind of half-band, half-orchestra.

Stinson, the color guard and the KSO Chorale entered for “The Star Spangled Banner,” which goes back to the War of 1812.  Stinson told the story of Key who, under a flag of truce, boarded a British ship in Baltimore harbor in September, 1814 to try to win the release of a friend.  Key witnessed the shelling of Fort McHenry from the ship and wrote his famous poem after seeing, “by the dawn’s early light,” that the American flag was still there.  The poem was set, somewhat irreverently, to the tune of a popular British drinking song.  The last stanza was projected behind the orchestra so the audience could read and sing:  “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust,” which it finally became in 1936, by act of Congress.  The song itself did not officially become the national anthem until 1931, again by act of Congress.

KSO keyboardist Scot Woolley arranged seven numbers on the program, including Jimmy Driftwood’s 1936 country classic, “Battle of New Orleans.”  The song, which topped the charts in both Britain and the U.S. when Johnny Horton did it in 1959, was given a spirited performance by Doerger and the Chorale.

No one bore witness to the American Civil War better than poet Walt Whitman, who wrote of volunteering in military hospitals in “The Wound-Dresser.”  Stinson and the KSO performed the third stanza of these painful verses, set by composer John Adams in 1988.  As sung by Stinson, the performance matched the gravity of the poem, with searing high trumpet (KSO trumpeter Brian Buerkle) and at the end, a mournful flute solo.  Cassidy reminded listeners of the devastation of the Civil War, in which two percent of the American population perished (nearly 700,000 people, a figure that would be equivalent to 6 million today).

Concertmistress Manami White spoke simply, but just as eloquently in Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell,” the fiddle tune heard in Ken Burns’ epic television series “The Civil War.”

White was joined by a ragtime ensemble for Woolley’s arrangement of “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” a military favorite during the Spanish-American War, according to Tom Consolo's excellent program notes.  It was on to the trenches from there for the World War I rallying song, “Over There” by George M. Cohan, also arranged by Woolley, and given a peppy rendition by Doerger, Rucidlo and the Chorale.

World War II was represented by excerpts from “Victory at Sea,” the Richard Rodgers/Robert Russell Bennett score for NBC’s landmark 1952-53 TV series.  KSO principal trumpeter Christopher Swainhart reduced 26 half-hour episodes to a 12-minute montage synchronized to music from the suite, which Cassidy and the KSO timed precisely.  How times have changed was evident in the film credits, which included the NBC Symphony, the network’s own orchestra which was disbanded in 1954 (were there once such things in the USA?)

Bringing the history lesson and the first half to an close were Woolley’s settings of “Ballad of the Green Berets” (Vietnam) and “Leave No Man Behind” from Hans Zimmer’s score for the 2000 film “Black Hawk Down” about the battle of Mogadishu (Somalia).  Agonizing images from America's wars were projected, whereupon Cassidy summoned the color guard for “Taps,” which was performed by on and offstage trumpets in a solemn salute to the nation’s fallen.

Part two was just as moving as the first, if not more so.  “You Can’t Blame Your Uncle Sammy," from the 1979 Broadway "burlesque" musical “Sugar Babies,” made for a rousing opener by Doerger, Rucidlo and the Chorale.  This was followed by an armed forces medley, where members of the audience who had served in the military were asked to stand as their service anthems were played.  At least 66 veterans were present, based on the number of stickers passed out at the box office, and it was inspiring to see them rise and acknowledge the applause.  (Cassidy’s father was a Marine who served in the Pacific in World War II, his mother a WAVE in the U.S. Navy, he said.  Both took part in President Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral procession, Cassidy’s father as a member of the color guard.)

“Liberty for All” was a stirring recitation by Doerger to Coplandesque music by Jim Beckel (principal trombonist of the Indianapolis Symphony).  Texts were drawn from the Declaration of Independence,  Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty . . .”), Washington at Valley Forge, Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby (who lost five sons in the Civil War)  and JFK’s inaugural address (“Ask not . . .”).

After “God Bless America," sung by the full company, piper Chris McLennan was heard approaching the stage.  It was a well-orchestrated moment leading to “We Remember,” a tribute to the nation’s aviation heroes by Dwayne O’Brien of the country band Little Texas.  Adapted for bagpipe and orchestra by Woolley, it was sung with great feeling by Rodney McGhee.  Cassidy followed with a tribute of his own: 

 Liberty and freedom are precious, and we in these United States are fortunate to have brave volunteers in uniform prepared to fight and preserve these most basic and intrinsic rights.  Some today are saying that America is no longer exceptional in a globalized world and is possibly a nation in decline.  While we have our troubles, I can’t think of a single country over the last 100 years and going forward today that has sacrificed as much blood and treasure to provide for those in need across the globe.  America is still the beacon for freedom and opportunity.  We owe to all who have served to do our part to keep that light shining brightly.

 In sum, it was a thoughtful, serious and inspiring evening -- more than just flag-waving and schmaltz -- and closed with the entire company singing “America the Beautiful” arranged by Carmen Dragon.