THE ARTS ETC
GOD BLESS AMERICA
A musical and visual tribute
celebrating the anniversaries
of the City of Springfield (375 years)
and Big Y World Class Markets (75 years)
SSpringfield Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Kevin Rhodes, Music Director
REVIEWED BY DONNA BAILEY-THOMPSON
The beauty of the GOD BLESS AMERICA program came from its deceptive ordinariness when, in fact, it was a classic example of knowing how to build an evening that did not simply reach out and touch a sensitive emotion but wrapped its musical arms around a public that could use a hug. Opening with the Star Spangled Banner and closing with God Bless America (Melissa Serra, Soprano) proved to be powerful bookends. Underscoring the program’s potency was the media’s seemingly 24/7 focus on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Emotions saturated with scenes of horror at Ground Zero responded to the authoritative force of unassailable justice represented by the rousing “The Last Words of David” by Randall Thompson. As sung by an especially energetic Springfield Symphony Chorus (Nikki Stoia, Director) backed up by the 70-piece SSO under the command of Maestro Kevin Rhodes, these lyrics resinated:
"He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.
And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth,
even a morning without clouds."
Fervor all but rattled the timbers.
A similar intensity but leavened by nonsense was delivered by the vibrant, resounding baritone of Vernon Hartman who used his extensive operatic experience to thoroughly castigate a nasty Dr. Seuss character in “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch
You’re a nasty, wasty, skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks
Your soul is full of gunk.
The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote:
Stink, stank, stunk.
Time to be beguiled by the Jovem Trio, three young, disciplined musicians, students at Springfield’s Community Music School – Kaydeb Behan, 8 (guitar), only slightly bigger than a minute, Devante Guthrie,12 (percussion) and Kacpar Kasila, 10 (clarinet). Their lively interpretation of Pacoca (Choro) charmed and wowed the audience who would not stop clapping until these cool musicians, musically mature beyond their years, returned to take another bow.
Under the guidance of directors Kayla Werlin and Lee Hagan, the growing Children’s Chorus of Springfield sang – with appropriate, heartfelt feeling fostered by innocense – “America the Beautiful” (that includes the lovely phrase, “alabaster cities gleam”) followed by the sweetly comforting “Evening Prayer” from “Hansel and Gretel” that points up the preciousness of children’s trust.
Does anyone not like the simplicity of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”? An intriguing arrangement by Roy Harris stretches the folk-like tune from the plains of Gettysburg to San Juan Hill, the trenches of World War One, the beaches of Normandy and Guadalcanal, Inchon, Ho Chi Minh trail, First Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq. As played by the versatile SSO and no-nonsense conducting by Springfield’s multifaceted, Kevin Rhodes, the Civil War song published in 1863 was transformed into a piece appropriate for pushing an anti-war agenda. Its minor key contradicts “And we’ll all feel gay/When Johnny comes marching home.”
When Johnny comes marching home again,
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies, they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home.
The militant orchestration created mind pictures of horrible battles, the chaos, the wounded and the dead. An exhausted Johnny comes home, scarred, hollow-eyed. This arrangement, screaming the waste of war, served as an anti-war poster, momentarily sucking oxygen out of the hall.
The tune is the same for the lyrics of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”
Where are your legs that used to run, huroo, huroo,
Where are your legs that used to run, huroo, hurro
Where are your legs that used to run when first you sent for to carry a gun?
Alas, your dancing days are done. Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.
After expending so much energy on the frustration generated by warring thoughts, easing into the soulfulness of a gospel choir felt natural and necessary. Voila! The Extended Family Choir assembled for their third performance with the SSO. Avery Sharpe, founder/composer/arranger, positioned his bass at center stage; his brother Kevin Sharpe, director, mounted the podium; the 17 choir members lined up at the back of the orchestra, and the upbeat gospel songs – “In That Great Getting Up Morning” and “Wade in the Water” got toes tapping, hands clapping, and souls feeling good.
When the applause trailed off, Mayor Domenic Sarno, minus the trappings of a formal introduction, walked onto the stage to warm applause. He spoke with pride of the City of Springfield’s 375th Anniversary, a milestone worthy of celebration.
Vernon Hartman returned to narrate – beautifully – the somber Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland. Because the score is so familiar, it is easy to take its playing for granted. However, the SSO breathed new life into the music: it shimmered. Among the quotes cited, this seemed especially timely:
He said: “It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same sprit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
[Lincoln-Douglas debates, 15 October 1958]
Following intermission, Maestro Rhodes conducted William Schuman’s “Prayer in a Time of War” featuring melodic threads to die for while a video by WGBY filled a large screen of scenes not yet old enough to qualify for airbrushed nostalgia – our wars beginning with WW One, including heavy emphasis on the commercial airliners used as weapons to maim and kill civilians, capped by the collapse of the Twin Towers.
A moment to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Big Y World Class Markets (their stores are everywhere!), including even especially commissioned ditties, performed by a well-trained chorus, made it possible to smile and chuckle.
Finally, it was Kevin Rhodes’ turn to sit at the concert grand and perform George Gershwin’s rippling concerto, “Rhapsody in Blue,” while one of his former students, Dirk Meyer, now assistant conductor of the Sarasota Orchestra, led the SSO. This performance was superior to one I heard a few years back. This piece was sensitively nuanced. Shadings of tone, appropriate phrasing – when to fuel the emotion and when to hold back - contributed to adding greater interest in the familiar piece, in effect, giving it a face lift, a new sheen and renewed appreciation. Bravo, Kevin Rhodes.
With the strains of Irving Berlin’s beloved “other national anthem” swelling patriotic pride, sadness and hope, the God Bless America enrichment program became one for Springfield’s history books.
A PERSONAL ASIDE
My mother passed along many bits of family history. During the Civil War, my great-grandmother and one of her sisters, sat by candlelight drinking tea. The babies were asleep. Gram's husband, Charles, was fighting in the war with other volunteers from Vermont.
Staring at the tea leaves left at the bottom of her cup, Gram's sister said, "Sarah, if I believed in such things, I'd say Charles is walking home this very night, wounded." The conviction in her sister's words prevented Gram from going to bed. A few hours later, Charles arrived.
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Kevin Rhodes, Musical director