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Jack Smith

In spite of his romantic soul, he is still stirred by the meter of all-American martial music

July 31, 1985|Jack Smith

Most of us have wells of patriotism that are rarely tapped. In today's complicated world, love of country is often submerged in anxiety over what the country is doing.

But my wells were tapped the other evening when we went to the Hollywood Bowl for "The Great American Concert."

It was pure, unabashed Americana, topped by fantastic fireworks and three marches by John Philip Sousa, concluding with the irresistible "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Threatening events like the recent hijacking seem to reawaken dormant feelings of patriotism in Americans, and the Bowl crowd was easily aroused.

We shared a box with two friends. Jean Mathison and Dottie Furman, arriving early enough that all our picnic gear was put away long before the concert began, and we were mildly tranquilized by two bottles of Napa Valley Chardonnay.

We had gone all out. My wife had prepared appetizers of green and red peppers, zucchini, jicama and a curry dip, and Dottie Furman had brought the roast chicken, artichokes, and carrot cake and coffee. We even had lighted candles.

All this gourmandizing may not prepare an audience for the subtleties of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, but it probably didn't render most of us too torpid for Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and the old march king himself.

Erich Kunzel, the pops conductor, set the tone of the evening by appearing in a casual white suit. The podium was raised a few inches above the stage, looking like a trampoline, and the way Kunzel bounced on it I wouldn't have been surprised to see him do a back flip.

He conducted "The Star-Spangled Banner" with dash, and my wife and the other women sang. Nothing but a declaration of war would move me to sing that difficult anthem in public, or almost any other song.

I had been surprised a week earlier when Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting "La Boheme," had either forgotten to begin with "The Star-Spangled Banner," or decided it didn't fit in with Puccini. Anyway, he didn't play it.

The American concert began with Sousa's overture to "El Capitan," a spirited thing that seemed to combine the lightest moments of Strauss, Offenbach and Sousa himself.

Then David Weiss, principal oboist of the Philharmonic, played a medley of beloved American tunes on a $7 Sears & Roebuck Stanley Handyman cross-cut saw, proving that music can be made with the humblest instruments. Weiss sawed charmingly through "Swanee River," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "Oh, Susanna," and other favorites.

I was reminded of Dr. Johnson's comment on the woman preacher: "Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

I don't mean that Weiss didn't do it well. I am just surprised that he does it at all. But to tell the truth, we have a record of Weiss and his musical saw at home--"Virtuoso Saw"--and it isn't bad dinner music.

The orchestra then attempted to reproduce some of the big-band sounds of the '20s, '30s, and '40s, going all the way back to Paul Whiteman, and up through Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. Nostalgic fun, but I missed the beat and drive of the old maestros.

Robert Merrill, the all-American baritone, opened with the playful "Cosi Cosa" from the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera," and threw in "I Got Plenty o' Nothin'," from "Porgy and Bess," as an encore.

At intermission I made a dash for the men's room up the hill. When I came out there were already long lines before the men's and women's entrances. As I reached the top of the ramp, up which all hopeful pilgrims must make their urgent climb, I passed a young couple, arms about each other, just as she saw the lines and said to him, "Oh, honey, I'm afraid we're going to have to split up."

What an irony, I thought: Sex had brought them together, and now it was splitting them apart.

After the intermission, Merrill sang "Ol' Man River" and an Irving Berlin medley, including "Always" and "God Bless America." My sister used to sing "Always" in her gorgeous contralto voice, and to me it has always seemed one of the most poignant of sentimental ballads, along with "All Alone."

Merrill invited the crowd to sing along and I broke my rule by singing "Always," but I refrained from singing "God Bless America." I always feel too intimidated by memories of Kate Smith.

By then the crowd's blood was stirred, and when the orchestra crashed into the "Washington Post March," and rockets began to burst in the sky above the shell, the patriotic fervor came up like thunder.

I don't know where they got them, but hundreds of people in the audience began waving American flags, the sky exploded with bombs, rockets, pinwheels and set pieces--the Marine Corps emblem, Old Glory, and John Philip Sousa himself.

It was a glorious, exciting, jingoistic show.

How many times I had marched to "The Washington Post March" and "Semper Fidelis" on the great parade ground at the Marine Corps Depot in San Diego, and it distressed me then that something deep inside me responded to the music and the cadence of the marching.

It still does. There is something in martial music that stirs old tribal blood, so I sit there and tingle and my chest hurts.

But I don't sing "God Bless America.'

I sing "I'll be loving you, always. . . ."

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