Music Review: Boston Pops Salutes Our Heroes

Reviewed By Caldwell Titcomb

Robert DeNiro, Keith Lockhart, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman at the finale of The Boston Pops's Am

Robert De Niro, Keith Lockhart, Ed Harris, and Morgan Freeman at the finale of The Boston Pops's program American Heroes Credit: Robert J. Lutch

The Boston Pops, celebrating its 125th anniversary, is devoting its third week of programs (May 18-22) to “American Heroes”—both living and dead.

The most newsworthy feature is a new cantata entitled “The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers.” Pops conductor Keith Lockhart addressed brief remarks to the audience saying, “Where much is given, much is expected,” adding that the Kennedys exemplified “public service more than any other American family.”

Lockhart commissioned the work from composer Peter Boyer (b. 1970) and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, whose major task was assembling an anthology of quotations from the three Kennedy brothers. The resulting piece contains narration, choral singing, and orchestral playing.

Perhaps the most notable predecessor is Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” for narrator and orchestra (1942). Boyer is no stranger to the genre, having composed “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” (2002), for actors and orchestra, which celebrates the immigrant experience and has received more than a hundred live performances.

For the first two performances of the new work, the narration was divided among four high-power stars: Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and Cherry Jones. (The remaining performances employ the award-winning local actor Will LeBow.)

Ahrens’s choice of excerpts included some well-known words, but she mixed these with some less familiar sources—both foreign and domestic. The brothers appeared in order of seniority: John, Robert, and Edward. President Kennedy’s inaugural (1961) provided the oft-cited “Let the word go forth . . .” and “Ask Not . . .,” but there was also his Rice University speech about exploring the moon (1962). Robert’s remarks in South Africa (1966) led to his courageous 1968 address in Indiana when he had to tell a throng that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated.

Edward also had an excerpt from South Africa, as well as his Liberty College address. It was obvious that the work should end with his resolute appearance, against widespread advice, at the Denver 2008 convention, where his talk concluded with the words “The dream lives on”—which provided the cantata’s title.

Boyer’s musical style here was highly accessible, with hardly any dissonance along the way. And it wound up forcefully in the “heroic” key of E-flat major. On first hearing at the May 18 premiere, I felt that the Tanglewood Festival Chorus ought to have been given more to do; if one gathers 60 singers on stage, they should fully justify their presence.

While the work was being performed, there were projections on a large screen above the stage. This video was put together by Susan Dangel and Dick Bartlett. There were black and white stills, as well as movie clips in color—all admirably and movingly chosen.

At the outset of the concert, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played with a line across the stage of an honor guard of New York and Boston firefighters (one with a live dog) present during the rescue and recovery missions at the World Trade Center on and after 9/11/01. Suspended above the stage was the thirty-foot National 9/11 Flag, largely destroyed and currently being restored by volunteers using flags salvaged from a Kansas tornado.

A rendition of the “Liberty Fanfare” by John Williams (who led the Pops for 14 seasons and is now its Conductor Laureate) was followed by excerpts from Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which opened at a curious spot but was good to hear as always. Vocalist Renese King (on the staff of the Berklee College of Music) brought her rich timbre and gospel flavor to “America the Beautiful” (which ought to be our National Anthem instead of the awful one adopted in 1932), joined at the end by the chorus.

Robert DeNiro and Keith Lockheart praising the Kennedys during

Robert De Niro and Keith Lockhart praising the Kennedys during American Heroes Credit: Robert J. Lutch

After a medley of tunes by the Doodletown Fifers, there appeared the now white-haired Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947), with guitar in hand. He played his own “Patriot’s Dream,” followed—with audience participation—by the famous “This Land Is Your Land” written by his celebrated father Woody Guthrie (1912-67).

We then had songs associated with the military branches, with veterans of each urged to stand while the texts were projected on the screen: “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” “Anchors Aweigh” (Navy), “The U.S. Air Force,” “Semper Paratus” (Coast Guard), and “The Marine’s Hymn.”

The military members who gave their lives were memorialized by the usual “Adagio for Strings” (1938) by Samuel Barber, which led without break to that grand song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” performed by the chorus as well as off-stage brass and drums. Conductor Lockhart urged a general sing-along of “some of the great songs of our great country”—with projected pictures and texts: “America,” “America the Beautiful” (again), “Yankee Doodle,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “God Bless America.”

There was an unadvertised dessert. Out came that formidable baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell. He first offered an anecdote, relevant to this program. He recalled being invited to an event by Edward Kennedy, who introduced him to another young guest. When the latter moved on, Kennedy whispered to Mitchell, “He’s going to be the first African-American president.” The guest of course was Barack Obama.

Mitchell proceeded to sing two numbers that he had included earlier this month in his Sanders Theater concert (which I reviewed here on May 10): “Wheels of a Dream” (from the musical Ragtime), and “The Impossible Dream” (from Man of La Mancha). Instead of a piano, he had a full orchestra this time, with the chorus joining in at the end. Mitchell received a standing ovation for each number—as well he might.

As its customary encore, the Pops performed Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” (with the chorus chiming in), one of the supreme pieces of American music.

Much of this program, including the new cantata, will be repeated on Saturday, May 22, broadcast on WCRB radio, 99.5. In addition, Boyer’s “The Dream Lives On” will air complete on WCVB-Channel 5 as part of its “An American Salute: The Pops at 125,” on Memorial Day, May 31, at 7:30 p.m.

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