Hong Kong Philharmonic performs Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, 2009

Sparkling Programs

This Fourth of July season, American orchestras are performing rousing patriotic favorites by composers like Gershwin, Bernstein, and Sousa. They’re playing foreign pieces that have ironically become part of the standard repertoire, like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. They’re performing homegrown Broadway hits (South Pacific, Funny Girl), Joplin classics, and Harold Arlen medleys. And they’re inviting music stars like Jennifer Hudson, who will perform with the Boston Pops on Wednesday.

Others are sticking to European classical composers because they value spirited moods over patriotic connotations; for example, the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan will play Rossini, Vivaldi, and Mozart, among others. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra has a quirky program lined up – it includes joyful tunes like Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor Overture, Strauss’s “Farmers’ Polka,” and “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets.

The question of what to program for the Fourth of July is one that touches on the nature of nationalism: How do we commemorate our country’s Declaration of Independence in a way that reaches all kinds of people, and that bridges tradition with new insight and feeling? Some orchestras are looking to other countries’ folk roots in order to uncover our own: on June 30, the DuPage Symphony Orchestra (outside of Chicago) performed Sibelius’s Finlandia and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony as well as popular American folk tunes. And then there are orchestras doing film scores, mostly John Williams salutes: for example, for its June 29 program, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed music from E. T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and the North Carolina Symphony will play “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan on July 4.

I spoke with Minnesota Orchestra Associate Conductor Courtney Lewis about his July 1 program at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis. The concert, which he put together in conjunction with Director of Pops Lilly Schwartz, was a mix of popular and slightly more serious music. They also threw in some oddities for good measure, like an Ives arrangement of Robert Lowry’s American hymn “Shall We Gather at the River?”

Minnesota Orchestra Associate Conductor Courtney Lewis says that Fourth of July programs can be varied and fun. Photo by Travis Anderson.

“Ives represented a kind of modernism that was rooted in the local culture,” Lewis says. “He got some of his material from listening to people singing out of tune in church. It makes Ives really relevant for Independence Day – the audience can hear the variations of the tune. It’s not difficult for the audience to grasp a piece as long as you talk to them about it. So I said to them, ‘Isn’t that a strange piece?’ and then I talked to them about how Ives was the founder of American classical music. You validate their experience of the piece so they don’t think they’re wrong.”

But variety alone isn’t enough. Lewis brings up the importance of pacing: “You can have a section that’s slower or more intimate and then some exciting things like Sousa,” he says. At the July 1 concert, “We also had a soloist and a drumline that came in during the beginning and the end, as well as the Minnesota Boychoir, which makes it possible to slip some things in like the Ives song.”

While several of the composers on these programs are strictly American (Ives, Gershwin, and others), many of them, ironically, are either foreign or have inherited their style of composing from foreigners. Two men indelibly associated with the American symphonic film score – Erich Korngold and Max Steiner – were born and raised in Austria-Hungary, which means that John Williams and other film score giants may follow in the tradition of the European greats. Even one of the most popular pieces to play at the close of Independence Day concerts – the 1812 Overture – was written by Tchaikovsky to commemorate Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s invading army in 1812. This June 24 NPR “All Things Considered” story explains how and why Americans have “co-opted” it as their own. Perhaps such re-purposing is appropriate for the Fourth – as a country, we plant the seeds for new ideas, but at the same time, we honor our roots.

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