Monday, September 19, 2011

An anthem to simplicity

If the goal of playing the national anthem is to get the audience to sing along, the Charlotte Symphony probably should go back to the basics.

The arrangement the orchestra uses now gives the patriotic tune a grand symphonic setup. It starts with fanfares, as you might expect. Then it switches gears for a bit of state-occasion dignity. After a half-minute or so, the orchestra launches into the famous melody, and it's time for everyone to join in.

So here's what happened Friday night. It was the opening concert of the season, and the first piece on the program was Shostakovich's Festive Overture, a flashy but not especially well-known piece. Christopher Warren-Green emerged from the wings, bowed and put the orchestra to work. The audience sat quietly and listened. After all, if you didn't happen to know the Festive Overture -- which also starts with fanfares, incidentally -- it would've been perfectly reasonable to think you were hearing it. There wasn't much in the anthem arrangement that would've tipped you off to what was actually coming if you weren't already on the lookout.

Finally, the players rose to their feet and started into a lusty tune. Surprise! It was the national anthem. By the time the audience caught on, stood and inhaled, the first words that came out with much impact were, "the dawn's early light," as best I could tell.

Now, that wasn't much of a way to stir up people's patriotic fervor, was it?

I'm not ordinarily addicted to the way things were done in the past, but orchestras used to do this in a simple but effective way. The conductor stepped onto the podium, cued the percussion, and a drum roll rang out. Everybody recognized the signal and got on their feet. By the time the orchestra set off on the anthem, anybody who wanted to sing was ready to fire away. Maybe we should go back to that.