Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” has bellowed out from every Fourth of July concert an American symphony orchestra has ever given (give or take), despite the fact that it depicts events that did not involve us in any way, specifically the Russian campaign against the man so complex he had a complex named after him. Perhaps our collective embrace of this overlong, hamfisted hodgepodge of themes designed to fire up Russians — who, despite their many virtues, are not Americans — is a testament to our national melting pot, in which distinctive characteristics of other people can become part of our common heritage if we say so. Or perhaps, in this age of small arms and laser-guided bombs, we just really like our cannon fire and will take it any way we can get it.
For years I have wished that an enterprising American composer who enjoys royalty checks would write an anthem as rousing, and perhaps of higher quality (Note: not essential), that would specifically celebrate the U.S. of A. and thus supplant “1812” in the national imagination. Was I ever surprised to learn that none other than Philip Glass, master of darkly murmuring ostinatos, had taken up his pen in response to a co-commission by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to write an “Overture for 2012″ to commemorate this continent’s War of 1812. Could the B-more native marshal his resources and knock Tchaikovsky from his unlikely perch atop the patriotic pops?
The BSO premiered “Overture for 2012,” under its music director (and Glass devotee) Marin Alsop, on Sunday night in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (The Torontonians premiered it simultaneously in wherever they play.) In Baltimore, the “Sailabration” was in full swing, featuring not only tall ships docked in the deep waters of Baltimore’s harbor but also an air show from the Blue Angels. My concertgoing companion and I wandered around the Inner Harbor for most of the afternoon, boarding foreign vessels and occasionally, cued by a sky-rending roar, looking up to glimpse a plane buzzing the skyline. The concert-opening Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired large chunks of the audience to actually sing, further primed the pump for patriotism.
“Overture for 2012″ opens with brass fanfare and percussion, martial in timbre and dense with notes, but both repeat until you notice they aren’t really going anywhere, at least how you’d expect them to in (say) Tchaikovsky. The basic materials of patriotic music, it turns out, fit into Glass’ compositional schema pretty well — both the fanfare and the rhythmic pattern are memorable and full enough of import that you’re willing to listen as they undergo subtle changes, like the image in a kaleidoscope changing as you slowly twist the dial. At one point the music pulses in a kind of Wagnerian bitonality, flashing major and minor without committing to either. Glass introduces another fanfare to push the music to a close, falling and then rising to come back to start, either an ironic comment on the “Up and at ’em!” character of most fanfares or just something that sounded cool and could further develop the material. Yes, for this occasion Philip Glass composed a work that sounded like about 20 percent John Philip Sousa and 80 percent Glass.
When it was over, I told my concertgoing companion through the din of applause, “Again! I want to hear it again right now!” Still, it’ll take something more blatantly pander-y to supplant Tchaikovsky — the “Bald Eagle Overture” on patriotic themes, featuring lots and lots of cannons, perhaps. But to commemorate a war that the United States only sort of won, a spot of bitonality and some ambivalent fanfares seem exactly the way to go.
The remainder of the program provided a mix of Maryland-centric and United States-centric music that I personally enjoyed even as I noted its flaws. In its non-Glass orchestral selections, the BSO sounded woefully under-rehearsed, making a particularly notable hash of the “Hoe-Down” from Aaron Copland’s score for “Rodeo.” The U.S. Navy Sea Chanters Chorus, as always, looked sparkling and sang characterfully, but they needed microphones to be heard in the hall, and there was a lot of trouble getting the mix right, especially when they sang with the orchestra. Maryland’s governor Martin O’Malley showed up with his band, O’Malley’s March, to sing three songs lauding Baltimore, a noble agenda marred in execution by ear-splittingly loud amplification; the violins of BSO, playing behind the band, might as well have been miming. The concert was apparently being taped for Maryland Public Television, and I assume they’ll fix the mix in post-production.
Fortunately, Alsop, the Navy singers, and the BSO had a trick up their sleeves for the program’s close: a drastically abbreviated version of the “1812 Overture,” using the version prepared by Igor Buketoff in which the hymns that Tchaikovsky outlined orchestrally are actually sung, so everyone can tell that the music is straight outta Russia. Then, as the final prerecorded cannon sound effects fired through the speakers, a pop from above, and confetti fluttered down from the ceiling of the Meyerhoff. It was still raining paper as Alsop and the orchestra took their bows, and as she left the stage, Alsop took a couple quick steps and stooped to grab a piece of confetti, smiling all the while. Apart from the Glass, which as noted I would like to hear again, this concert could well be summed up by that gesture: messy, but fun.