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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

An Anthem of the Mind

Reflections on the National Anthem and the Trump presidency.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Three Flags by Jasper Johns from 1958.
Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In the last 24 hours of the never-ending cycle of news, tweets and sloganeering that has come to characterize American politics since the elevation of one Donald John Trump to the highest office in the land, another firestorm has erupted. The subject: Mr. Trump's decision last night to attack currently unemployed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his protest gesture of taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem at NFL games.



Mr. Kaepernick, a skilled, champion-level athlete who until recently was employed by the San Francisco '49ers is currently without employment. His gesture was copied by some of his fellow football players, aimed squarely at a country which seems to ignore the shooting of African-American men by police officers, which happens with little judicial consequence for the officers involved. Mr. Trump, casting about for a talking point while addressing a roomful of political supporters at a rally for Republican candidate Luther Strange, chose Mr. Kaepernick as his target, wielding his tired "You're fired!" catchphrase like a rusty iron pipe.

(Now, all this talk of politics and sports may seem well outside the purview of a modest blog dedicated to the coverage of classical music and opera. Gentle reader, let me make my point before you flip to some other article.)

In the world of covering art music, this is a time of year when we reviewers must repeatedly hear the National Anthem. It is played at the opening of the New York Philharmonic season. At the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season, which (for the record) is Monday night. And at the opening of Carnegie Hall, which is coming up fast on the first Wednesday in October. And we all stand and listen or maybe sing along. For a city that was attacked in 2001, it has become more than a mindless tradition, but an affirming experience.

On Tuesday night, I stood and sang. I did so reluctantly, feeling the mindless evil that now stands at the wheel of this country. Feeling the fear that an arrogant Trump tweet or bleat will cause the fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to burn on these shores or on the Korean peninsula. Feeling terror that the determined Republicans would find a way to strip us Americans of our civil rights, our meager health care, and of the freedoms that we enjoy, in the name of "security," "compassion," and other such political buzzwords.

I did not want to get up. I wanted to sit, slumped in protest as the Anthem played, a large, unmoving blob of a man in a bad suit, stuck in Seat AA 2 in David Geffen Hall. As the music started, I looked at the stage. At Jaap van Zweden, an immigrant from the Netherlands, educated here at the Juilliard School, leading the country's oldest orchestra. At the New York Philharmonic. If they swept aside the vagaries of  of leadership and their own peccadilloes, they could whip almost any orchestra on a good day with their hands tied behind their back. At my fellow New Yorkers both onstage and in the audience. And I stood up.

I stood because I respect the musicians playing and their artistry, even in the rolling, pompous big-orchestra version of the Anthem with its predictable cymbal clashes and excesses of percussion and brass. (It was pretty good, with the orchestra's recent experience playing the scores of the Star Wars films maybe adding a little extra mustard to the annual performance.) And I heard a beautiful sound, an operatically trained mezzo singing the Anthem a few rows ahead of me, giving the words of Francis Scott Key the treatment they deserve. I sang along quietly, flat as usual, but I felt part of something again. Part of my city. Of my country.

I thought about what this orchestra did for New York after September 11, playing Beethoven and Mahler to help the healing process for the traumatized. I thought about their goodwill tour of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, America's enemy and Mr. Trump's opponent in a ridiculous international game of chicken. I thought about how hard it is to sing the middle section of the National Anthem when it goes up a register--I quietly enjoyed the singer's performance in front of me. At the end she uttered a very soft "Play ball!" an old joke from the Anthem's history at sporting events.

I found what it meant to me to stand up, but I also understand why others may sit or kneel.


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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.