Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony reminds us what America is all about

Westwater Arts provided the photo montages that accompanied the Charlotte Symphony’s “Patriotic Pops” concert at Knight Theater this weekend. One was of national parks around the United States.
Westwater Arts provided the photo montages that accompanied the Charlotte Symphony’s “Patriotic Pops” concert at Knight Theater this weekend. One was of national parks around the United States. Courtesy of Westwater Arts

What is an American?

The child of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, a boy who grew up above his parents’ shop in Brooklyn.

The openly gay son of Pennsylvania patricians, a Pulitzer-winner who never had to consider another career besides music.

The Czech man in his 50s who came to America speaking broken English, settled in New York to run a conservatory and had perhaps the happiest moments of his stay in the small town of Spillville, Iowa.

The offspring of a New England jazzman, a kid who grew up in New York and Los Angeles and learned his trade arranging and conducting for the U.S. Air Force Band.

So it’s fitting that Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Antonin Dvorak and John Williams provide the musical backbone for “Patriotic Pops.” Fitting, too, that conductor Albert-George Schram, whose Dutch accent reveals his origin, should be on the podium for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend.

The concert’s a combination of joyous or somber emotions, heartfelt tributes to veterans and bombast. I don’t mean the encore, John Philip Sousa’s magnificent “Stars and Stripes Forever.” But Morton Gould’s “American Salute,” a series of variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” goes in noisy circles.

Visual elements make these Knight Theater outings unique. Nicholas Bardonnay of Westwater Arts has designed photo montages to go with the music: a World War I segment for Copland’s “Quiet City,” a World War II segment for Barber’s tumultuous “Essay No. 2” (finished three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor) and an aptly described “visual concerto” of national parks to accompany the largo from Dvorak’s symphony “From the New World.” That tender music went well with the pictures of fragile environmental miracles.

Bardonnay tells comprehensive visual stories: The World War II montage shows scenes of combat, starving prisoners of war about to be liberated, faces from many nations, the internment camps in which the U.S. government penned citizens of Japanese descent, the women who made munitions factories hum on the home front – a mix of shame, progress and triumph, ending in peace. (Do you know why Veterans Day is celebrated Nov. 11? The Allies and Germany signed the armistice ending World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. It was called Armistice Day until 1954.)

Yet the orchestra stood well enough on its own. Trumpeter Rich Harris and English horn player Terry Maskin did some of the heavy lifting and played handsomely, Maskin in the Dvorak and Copland and Harris in the Copland and John Williams’ excitingly empty “Summon the Heroes.”

And heroes there were in the audience: veterans who stood during a medley of five service anthems, drawing appreciative applause from the crowd. (This section is repeated, and should be, each autumn.)

Except in Bardonnay’s images, African-Americans didn’t get a look-in: no works by Still or Ellington or Joplin, though of course the tune of Dvorak’s largo was borrowed for the spiritual “Goin’ Home.” Perhaps we can count Elmer Bernstein’s theme for “The Magnificent Seven,” used in the recent remake with Denzel Washington in the lead.

The orchestra romped through a mini-suite from that Oscar-nominated score, leading me to wonder why Jews wrote the best music for western movies: not just Bernstein and Copland but Jerome Moross, Max Steiner, Dmitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman and others.

Maybe contributing to the quintessential American myth – that of the wild west, tamed by righteous gunmen and hardy settlers – allowed these men, all of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, to feel they were real Americans, too.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Patriotic Pops’

The concert repeats Saturday, Nov. 12 at Knight Theater at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28-$104. 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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