Friday, July 2, 2010

Oh Say Can You See? - Conductors Beware (by James Baker)

Our National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, is a land mine for performers. We have all seen artists suffer with memory lapses, forgetting words, or failing the challenge of the song's melodic range of an octave and a fifth. "And the rockets' red glare," gets into a no man's land for many untrained singers, as does "O'er the land of the free" in the final phrase. Of course, this is also the moment the "virtuoso" lives for, both singers and trumpet players, as they improvise the "high C" moment which the public has come to expect.

It's funny, in a sense, that performers get away with these idiosyncrasies, while poor Igor Stravinsky was threatened with jail when he dared to meddle with some of the Banner's harmonies. A popular myth has it that Stravinsky was actually arrested for his un-American activity, but it is exactly that: a myth. Imagine if we round up everyone who recomposes the Anthem into 4/4 time, rather than the proper 3/4? There's actually an early publication of the sheet music which shows it in 6/4 time!

The Star-Spangled Banner presents further complications for conductors, or more commonly celebrity conductors who don't quite get the idea of "pickup notes", notes which anticipate the true downbeat on "say can you see". I remember one San Antonio mayor who turned the meter completely around when conducting the San Antonio Symphony during a telethon from North Star Mall. Thankfully, the Symphony was adept at playing with blinders on, totally ignoring the guest conductor while still managing to beam broad smiles for the television cameras.

The most amusing disaster took place just after Victor Alessandro retired from the post of Music Director of the San Antonio Symphony at the end of the 1975-76 season. Until then, it had been tradition for the Symphony to open every subscription concert with the Anthem. The snare drummer would preface the evening with a drum roll, the orchestra would rise, as would the audience, and Alessandro (or whomever else might be conducting) would lead the orchestra and the public in The Star-Spangled Banner. However, when Alessandro stepped down (he passed away soon afterward, in November of 1976), it was decided that The National Anthem would be part of the pomp of opening night, but would no longer open every formal concert. This might seem like a mostly innocuous change in procedure, marking the beginning of a new era for the San Antonio Symphony, and it might have gone little observed if not for some unfortunate programming.

Once Alessandro vacated the Music Director position, the orchestra launched the by now familiar "search" for a new conductor. Guest conductors were lined up, while Roger Melone, previously the Orchestra's Associate Conductor, was charged with presiding over what was hoped to be a smooth transition. The opening of the 1976-77 season was a smashing success. The Star-Spangled Banner was exactly where the public expected it, and the orchestra began to test its mettle in a post-Alessandro era. The second concert of the season brought to the podium the first of the lineup of guest conductors. His name escapes me, but he was an Italian American who brought a full head of steam onstage. He challenged the orchestra with a program which included Rossini's La Gazza Ladra. His tempi were brisk, forcing a change here and there in the orchestra seating such that younger players began immediately to emerge to the fore after many years of living in the shadow of some of the veterans. In particular, Associate Principal Horn Steve Kraemer took the first horn part on the Rossini. It's not an easy part, particularly if the tempo is brisk. Still, Steve was on top of the part. It wasn't an issue.

If anyone anticipated the fiasco which was about to unfold, they had kept their opinions to themselves. La Gazza Ladra was the opener on the program. The house lights dimmed. Julius Schulman, in his second season as Concertmaster, came onstage to tune the orchestra. Finally, the hot-blooded guest conductor came onstage to rapturous applause. The orchestra rose to greet the maestro. But then the orchestra seated itself again. For the astute in the audience, there might have been the realization that this was a change in protocol. Nevertheless, the orchestra settled and the maestro cued the first of the antiphonal snare drum rolls which open La Gazza Ladra. The air rustled noticeably in the auditorium, then called Theater for the Performing Arts. The conductor felt the air press against his back and heard the thump of hundreds of theater seats as the audience obediently rose. The conductor froze as the orchestra sensed immediately what was going down. Ein Musikalischer Spass, the musical joke, could not have been choreographed more perfectly. The awkward chill was broken as a voice in the audience, obviously more accustomed to hot dogs and a ball park, roared out: "Go ahead and play The National Anthem!" That was the final straw. By now the conductor had signaled the antiphonal drummers to suspend their drum rolls. Now he stormed from the podium.

They might as well have sold peanuts and cracker jacks, for the beginning of the concert was suspended indefinitely as the orchestra management pleaded with the conductor to go back out, to try again. Meanwhile, the audience finally settled back into its seats. A full 10 minutes must have elapsed before the conductor finally returned to begin anew his carefully calculated Rossini. Only by now, his blood was rushing. He had been bitterly wounded by the insult and it all came out in his tempo, a full 10 beats per minute faster than he had rehearsed. The orchestra struggled to keep up and poor Steve Kraemer fought through his devilish solo passage, a bit ragged around the edges.

The rest of the concert held fewer surprises, though I am sure the audience was buzzing through intermission, reflecting on the part they had played in one of the funniest unintended musical jokes ever perpetrated. It wouldn't be until Danny Kaye came to town a few months later that there would be such mayhem within the environ of the Theater for the Performing Arts, only then it was intentional. Let this be a lesson to all who are giving July 4th concerts across the nation. Don't forget The Star-Spangled Banner, in 3/4 time I hope. Then you can play La Gazza Ladra.

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