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The Arts Voyager, 9-2: What is America to Me?
Van Cliburn and the Fort Worth Symphony rise to the occasion

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "In Without Knocking," 1909. Oil on canvas. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas 1961.201.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

FORT WORTH, Texas -- In the 10 years since the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, Uncle Sam's shoulders have often seemed to slump from the weight of a revenge which has exacted a million innocent lives for 3,000, an economy which has footed the bill at the expense of American children, cities, and the poor, and a Bill of Rights which both Republican and Democratic presidents have laid siege to. One might well ask -- well, anyway, your humble correspondent might -- What exactly is there to celebrate about America in 2011?, and be less than enthusiastic about a mini-festival called Celebrate America. Yet this would be a gross misread of the event as planned and executed last weekend by the Fort Worth Symphony, as lead by music director and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and, for Saturday's performance at Bass Hall, hoisted upon the sturdy shoulders of one of the country's most celebrated bearers of non-military victories in international relations of the 20th century, no less than Van Cliburn, perfectly cast as Lincoln in Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait."

I was a bit jolted by the command performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner" which launched Saturday's program. Yet on reading the actual lyrics and context of Francis Scott Key's 1814 poem written aboard a British ship while it was sacking an American fort, I'm glad I stood on my feet and not my ground. In fact, the 'bombs bursting the air' that give proof that 'our flag was still there' are British, and the proof they furnish is not by their might but their light, which illuminates the flag, still, indeed, standing.

Nearly 200 years later, with that flag under its worse assault since World War II, by foreign enemies who would attack it and domestic ones who would usurp it to re-form an imperfect union unto G-d that contravenes it, the bombs, sometimes foreign-launched, sometimes self-inflicted, and with the politicians content to utter blind platitudes ("This is America," says our president.... Yes, and...?), the Arts can play a critical role in illuminating our real cultural values and the values of our common history, the values -- more than what has become a questionable political and civil freedom -- still vaunted and admired around the world. One can divine this in the esprit, verve, and gusto with which the Peruvian-born Harth-Bedoya, naturalized 10 years ago, conducted a program of Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, and Copland which was anything but haphazard, chosen in turn to illuminate the rich and kaleidoscopic cultural tapestry that should still be a source of pride for Americans and could still be a source of emulation for others.

Part of being American is the freedom to interrogate. Copland's 1942 "Lincoln Portrait," which sets some of the great orator and president's most probing words against a score resplendent with and colored by Copland's compositional knack for incorporating folk Americana -- he just might be our Bela Bartok -- may have been commissioned to stir up patriotism as part of the war effort, but the patriotism here is not unquestioning, the work standing as an interrogation of our history which also functions as an inquisatory of our present. Morsels from Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races" harken back to a time when America was more divided than unified, at first listen a curious choice for a piece supposedly commissioned to help bring a nation together around one flag, united forever. But in fact, besides reminding us that even music of disagreeable origins (here, Dixie) can be agreeablly, dare I say, nostalgic, it serves as prelude to the question posed by Lincoln as evoked during the final movement as performed Saturday:

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We -- even we here -- hold the power and bear the responsibility."

My guest at Bass Hall for Saturday's performance thought the remarks prescient for the challenges posed to Congress today; I was depressed by how little today's putative leaders measure up to Lincoln's broad shoulders. Oh that they had the stature of Van Cliburn, who definitely plays in Lincoln's terrain, and not just because of his towering (and Lincolnesque lean) physical presence. If Cliburn's delivery was more or less straightforward, he still knew just when to pause and look to his audience, as if to emphasize the speech's currency:

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think new and act new. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

Van Cliburn, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and the Fort Worth Symphony. Photo by and copyright Ellen Appel and courtesy Fort Worth Symphony.

For his part, Cliburn was clearly enthralled with the FW Symphony players. After the first curtain call, he refused to let go of the two hands Harth-Bedoya had extended, insisting, with elated jubilation, that the orchestra stand for a second round of hearty applause. It's clear that more than half a century after Texas sent him forth to conquer at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where the 23-year-old pianist singularly if only temporarily sent the Cold War walls crashing down when even Kruschev had to admit he was the best after an eight-minute ovation, Cliburn still regards this orchestra with a certain hometown pride. This doesn't mean he's a homer; as meticulously directed by Harth-Bedoya, this is one tight yet ebullient ensemble.

Where the conductor stands out is in highlighting individual instruments and instrumentations, notably here a saxophone in the jazzy opener, the Symphonic Suite from Elia Kazan's 1954 "On the Waterfront," Leonard Bernstein's only score created expressly for film. (In a breezy between-numbers chat with principal keyboarist Shields-Collins Bray, chanelling the long-time New York Philharmonic director in his best explanatory mode, Harth-Bedoya noted that while Bernstein was not particularly keen on working with Kazan -- because he had named names before the House 'Un-American" Activities Committee in 1947? -- he changed his mind when he saw the film.) Lively strains of Latinesque percussion align the film with the film scores of the epoch, notably those of Henry Mancini for Orson Welles's 1958 "Touch of Evil" and Stanley Donen's 1963 "Charade." Where this orchestra appears to slip sometimes is when all the violins are chiming in at once and sometimes seem muted. Also muted -- this time the fault of the arranger -- was what seemed like unrecognizable transitional themes in Robert Russell Bennett's orchestration of George Gershwin for "Porgy & Bess: A Symphonic Picture."

The evening's weakest point unfortunately surfaced in what should have been its most affecting composition, Bernstein's 1965 "Chichester Psalms." This work for choir and orchestra depends for its stirring effect on the choir, which in turn depends on a boy soprano, who, in this case, was not up to the task. Singularly lacking in passion, Zachary Harrison also seemed to hit at least one note which was simply flat or out of tune. The lines might have been given to the much more lyrical soprano whose solo lifted from the depths of the choir at the rear of the stage at one point.

Fortunately for the overall impact of this concert, what boyish charm the boy soprano lacked was more than made up for by the animation of the Fort Worth Symphony's boyish director. This brio was also evident in the selections for the Friday, August 26 "Celebrate America" program, which included Copland's Suite from "Billy the Kid," set against cowboy-appropriate images by Frederic S. Remington and Charles M. Russell lurnished by Fort Worth's Carter Museum of American Art, established 50 years ago by newspaper-man Amon Carter on the foundation of his Russell collection.

To read more about Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" and see an original type-written manuscript with the text, click here.

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