Houston Symphony Lets Freedom Ring on 4th of July

For Americans in this year that follows the infamy of September 11th, no reminder of their cherished freedoms was necessary. But for those in the capacity crowd at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on the eve of Independence Day, The Houston Symphony provided a very rich reminder indeed. It was the annual “Star-Spangled Salute,” but one could sense that this audience understood the value of American liberties better than any that had preceded it.

Dressed in black-tie and crisp white dinner jacket, popular HSO conductor, Michael Krajewski, was on the podium. The symphonic smorgasbord began with a spirited “Fanfare” and rousing “Star Spangled Banner.” I have never heard an audience join with more enthusiasm in singing the National Anthem. The wave of orchestral patriotism continued with Bagley’s “National Emblem March.”

Then came the musical imagery of Grofé’s “On the Trail” from his Grand Canyon Suite. Concert Master, Eric Halen, supplied the superb opening solo moments on violin. With help from the orchestra’s fine percussion section, we can easily visualize the gently loping donkey that scales the canyon walls. I find myself thinking of my adventurous sister, Jeanne, who rode that donkey trail to the canyon floor many years ago.

The musical brilliance continued with the jazzy “Times Square” segment from Leonard Bernstein’s musical, On The Town. The pounding and thrilling conclusion made me wonder if Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” had influenced Bernstein.This performance contained all the high energy that seemed lacking in the disappointing Broadway revival I saw several years ago in New York.

A celebration of the late Richard Rodgers’ 100th birthday began with selections from “Oklahoma!” There was the majestic sweep of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” the merriment of “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends,” the delicate trot of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” the warm embrace of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and a robust rendition of the title song that sent audience hand-clappers into a frenzy.

Next the audience was treated to the mellow and powerful tenor voice of handsome Broadway performer, Hugh Panaro, as he sang two more Rodgers classics. He brought rich musical phrasing to “Younger Than Springtime,” and incredible musical range, breath control, and soaring high notes to the vocally challenging “Climb Every Mountain.” It was a thrilling performance, and was followed by still more Americana with a Wendel arrangement of “From Sea to Shining Sea,” that took the audience on a virtual tour of the nation from “San Francisco” to “New York, New York.” The latter song sent a shiver through this native New Yorker as I thought of the city’s triumph through this past year of greatest challenge.

Following intermission there were two sparkling Prechel arrangements. The first was “My Country.” The second was a film tribute titled “Westward Ho,” and featured the thrilling theme from “How the West Was Won,” the tender sweetness of the “High Noon” theme, and the resounding and pulsing theme from “The Magnificent Seven,” with its vivid images of western wide open spaces. After the orchestra continued with “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” maestro Krajewski proudly declared, “You’re never gonna hear it played any better than by the Houston Symphony!” I won’t try to improve on that “review!”

A program highlight each year is the “Service Medley,” during which each of the U.S. military themes is played while corresponding servicemen and women in the audience (both past and present) stand to the appreciative applause of the crowd. Again, this was a moment that seemed to have special meaning this year. Also of note, when the U.S. Army theme was played, Woodlands founder, George Mitchell, was among the proud soldiers to stand for recognition.

Mr. Panaro returned to the stage in a sharp western shirt, with Texas flag design, and gave a stunning performance of Lee Greenwood’s classic, “God Bless the U.S.A.” The audience roared approval and was rewarded with the traditional finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” including cannon fire from the hilltop.

If things in America are not just the same after that grim morning last September, one thing was clear on this beautiful night in a free nation:

The Best of America was still intact, and a people of freedom seemed more appreciative than ever of the value of liberty. When the “Stars and Stripes Forever” encore was played, many of us realized that “forever” only comes at the price of great courage from our nation’s heroes.

(The Courier    7.7.02)

(The Villager    7.11.02)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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