Sunday, November 11, 2007

Randall Thompson's Testament of Freedom and other patriotic works at No Va CC concert Veteran's Day

On Veteran’s Day, Sunday Nov. 11, 2007, Northern Virginia Community College, the Music Program ( ), presented a short concert with four items. Performing were the Washington Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, NVCC Annandale Chorus, NOVA Community Chorus, and the Annandale High School Men’s Chorus. Conductors were Henry Sgrecci, Robert Webb and Mark Whitmire. The concert was held in the Rachel M. Schlessinger Concert Hall of the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

The four program items were

(1) Roy Harris: Variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” The music, developing the minor-keyed Civil War tune, adds quite a bit of massed chordal dissonance in places, in a style that reminds one of the composer’s Third Symphony.

(2) Edwin Eugene Bagley, “National Emblem March,” with a Presentation of the Colors by the Color Guard of West Potomac High School (Academy ROTC Program)near Alexandria, VA. (Both high schools in the concert are part of the Fairfax County Public Schools system.) I remember having a 78 rpm record of this march as a boy. The audience stood for the colors, which interrupted the march, and used M-14s. I was trained in Army Basic on the M14 (just before the M16 was introduced in Basic -- but even then there was no drill and ceremony for the newer weapon) but I would not remember how to disassemble and clean it now.

(3) Randall Thompson, “Testament of Freedom” (1943), a cantata in four movements, written to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. The music has little modernism to challenge the popular listener and is accessible and straighforward, having the effect of hymn music. As such, it has relatively little tension compared to most concert choral music. The text comes from
“A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774) and the “Declaration and Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” (1776). The text can be found here.

(4) Carmen Dragon’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful”

The concert hall is modern and ample (almost 1000 seats), with sound dampers that reminds me of all the news stories of the acoustic engineering of major orchestra concert halls back in the 60s. Before the audience was admitted, the choruses rehearsed in the lobby in front of the patrons. There are thirteen colonial flags below the stage symbolizing the thirteen colonies.

A concert like this also seems like an exercise in patriotism, a kind of homage. (We sometimes forget that we used to call this day Armistice Day, and that World War I was at one time called "The Great War." The commemoration hardly constitutes the “windmills” of real sacrificial service. The controversy is, just how much does the freedom of many of us depend on the sacrifices of some of us. (Economically it’s another matter.) In Iraq, just as with Vietnam, we are hardly sure. During WWII, the Greatest Generation, there was no question about it.

Update: March 15, 2008

The other Thomson, Virgil Thomson, composed some film music in the 30s and 40s. Here is a movie review that discusses him (from the National Archive's "New Deal on Film," here.

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