July 5, 2010 at 10:48 PM
This 4th of July I wanted to take my kids to see fireworks. In the past, I haven't. They start too late, my inner agoraphobic recoils from the crowds at the Boston Esplanade, or, as happened a few years ago, at work there is an NIH grant due on July 5.
This year my boss postponed a grant submission, leaving me with an unexpected free weekend. I thought about a number of things I could do--drive to the Cape, maybe? Go camping? But I kept coming back to my memories as a kid of watching the fireworks at Bassett Park, with a lead-in from the Buffalo Philharmonic. This was, in the retrospective glow, a low-key yet high-quality fireworks, one that started reasonably early, like 9:15, and had good music and reasonable crowds. My violin teacher was in the Buffalo Philharmonic. They played the 1812 Overture last, and the fireworks started as the cannons in the piece boomed, dusk fading to black as the music ended and the visual show began.
I knew it had changed venues, and maybe even orchestras, since then, but I headed to my parents' with the kids in tow, planning for fireworks. We camped along the way.
I also arranged to meet a childhood friend, Diana. We lived next door to each other from when I was about 5 and she was about 3, until I was 11 and she was 9. Her family had an old beat-up piano in their basement that we used to bang on for fun. We hadn't seen each other in many years, but she found me on the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra Alumni Facebook page. We didn't overlap as members of the orchestra: I played violin in it for 3 years, she played flute for 2. She went on to major in music and become a flute and piano teacher.
My daughter, who has been playing violin for a few years now (and who was indirectly responsible for my starting to play again), has been asking about playing the piccolo. The piccolo? Oh boy . . . you mean that miniature, squeaky, ear-piercing, godawful . . . um, that nice little instrument that plays a cool solo in "Stars and Stripes Forever"? Yeah, that one.
We contacted Diana on Facebook and asked if you had to learn to play the flute first before you could learn the piccolo. She confirmed yes, she would recommend that. She also said that she would bring along her instruments "Jean-Pierre" and "Tiko" when we visited and my daughter could meet them.
My daughter spent quite a while blowing into Jean-Pierre's headpiece while Diana adjusted the position and gave her advice, but she was eventually able to make a decent sound. She wasn't able to get a sound out of Tiko, but thereby gained a better understanding of why she should start on a flute first. Diana said to me, "you should bring your violin, we could play duets." I had wanted to, thought about it pretty seriously, but when it came down to packing the car and thinking about what I would do with it while we were camping, in this heat on top of everything else, I elected to leave it behind.
After an afternoon of catching up, looking at old photo albums, eating chocolate chip cookies, and finding my daughter another instrument to play, we headed to the fireworks. As I thought, they are no longer in Bassett Park, they are on the University at Buffalo campus, over a lake and near an installation of marble columns. People gather on the shores of the lake, on picnic blankets and lawn chairs. We, like everyone else, have a perfect view. And, there is enough parking.
But these are not my fireworks. First of all, they aren't starting until 10. A lot of places do that these days--wait until it is pitch black rather than dusk. I remember a particularly annoying 4th one year in Pasadena, waiting for what seemed like forever on a beach towel outside the Rose Bowl--they may not have started there until 10:30 or 11. I don't think this is necessary. 9:30 or even 9:15 still works to see the show, and is more family-friendly.
I can live with starting at 10. The kids are bored, but they spend time running up and down the ramp in front of the columns, collecting goose feathers from beside the lake, looking through my binoculars, whining for overpriced glowsticks, and asking "what time is it now?" every two minutes. What I find harder to live with is the fact that there is no orchestra. Only a band.
I approach the stage, which is not visible from where we are sitting, to get a closer look. The band is playing the Light Cavalry Overture, which I played this year in the Arlington Phil. POPS concert. It sounds fine. Until they get to the sul-G section that is supposed to be played by the 1st and 2nd violins in unison. I think the oboe is playing it in this arrangement. The player is okay, but it sounds sort of jazzy, or swingy. It sounds all wrong. I'm interrupted from these uncharitable thoughts by two college students who want me to take their picture on their digital camera. When I get done, the band is playing a Sousa march, one that I don't know, called "King Cotton." This sounds better.
I decide to walk back to the picnic blanket where the rest of my family is sitting, arguing about who gets to use the binoculars, and as I walk, I wonder, what made the Buffalo Philharmonic stop playing this gig? Why aren't they here anymore? My own little community Philharmonic, in Arlington MA where I play violin, plays this same music. We play it in June, not July, to a sold-out POPS crowd at the Arlington Town Hall. There aren't fireworks at ours, but there is a strawberry festival and a generally festive atmosphere. People come to hear the music--the rousing overtures, the tributes to the armed forces, the Sousa marches--it's a slice of small-town America that still exists. Community orchestras, and apparently community bands, seem to still understand this.
Is it just that most people think that concert bands do this music well enough, or even better than orchestras? Am I just a cranky string player, worried about the possibility of losing my violinist daughter to the charms of the flute and piccolo? (She says she's not going to quit violin, but she only has so much time to practice). When I get back to the blanket, they start the 1812 Overture. And yes, I'm cranky and getting crankier. Because they leave out the *entire opening.*
Last year, I had the privilege of playing the opening arranged as a string quartet with the Arlington Phil. Admittedly, the opening is different from the rest of the piece. There are no cannons going off, no bells ringing, no horses galloping. The dynamic didn't go above mp, even with just the 4 of us.
I've been in the audience for the opening of the 1812 overture, too, played by a real orchestra before fireworks. The audience hushes, just for a few minutes, and looking around you see the glow sticks, the camera flashes, the cell phone screens, and the stars come out, both prefiguring what is to come, and reminding you what those fireworks symbolize. This music honors the fallen, gives voice to grief, reassures that they did not die in vain. When I was practicing this opening for my 1st violin part with the Arlington Phil., it took me several run-throughs at home before I could be sure of keeping back tears in rehearsal. This music is not for the concert band. It needs strings.
Which they don't have. They launch right into the cannons, bells, and horses, and follow it with "Stars and Stripes Forever." When they get to the piccolo solo, I nudge my daughter. The piccolo player nails it. My daughter nods and smiles. I think she will carry good memories of these fireworks with her, but I hope that someday she too can look up at the stars to the opening of 1812, played by an orchestra.
lovely blog. Have to confess I am a tad puzzled by your interpretation of the opening. Never studied the actual intent of the music in any depth so you may well be right but I thought it concerned one of the largest and most ill considered examples of imperialism in history which was defeated by a classic application of scorched earth warfare. It seems to me that those concerned -very much -died in vain. More often than not the case with war.
What do you think?
Buri, I haven't studied the intent behind the opening, either. I'm assuming that, especially after reading what you wrote about it, Tchaikovsky wouldn't understand why that overture is played at American 4th of July celebrations at all. (Growing up, I used to think it was about the US War of 1812--which, apparently, is a common misconception among Americans). So, here, from Wikipedia, is an interesting bit of US cultural history:
"Though most Americans recognize the work for its associations with the Independence Day celebrations of the United States, few realize the work's inspiration as being not about the US and the British in the War of 1812, but the triumph of Russia on the far end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Tchaikovsky scholar Leon Botstein argues that part of the reason for the United States commandeering of the tune is that the country was short on patriotic hymns and, given its ending, the Overture was conducive to grand bombastic performances. The Overture had been performed sporadically throughout the 20th century, but it was a 1974 performance by the Boston Pops that secured the work's place in the nation's patriotic canon. Conductor Arthur Fiedler directed a performance of the Pops on the Charles River Esplanade, replete with actual cannons, fireworks, and a steeple-bell choir. The broadcast around the country by the nation's premier outdoor orchestra was successful and other orchestras followed suit. The Boston concert became an annual tradition in 1981 and the connotations have been worn into American cultural consciousness."
I didn't see that performance. Despite living in the Boston area now, I've never seen a live Pops performance on the Esplanade (as I said--fighting the crowds is not really my thing). My interpretation is only empirical, based on my personal experience of playing it and listening to it in the context of 20th and 21st century US Independence Day celebrations. I guess I can only say that I think great music can transcend its original intent and cultural context. Does the Eroica symphony have to make us all think of Napoleon too? Maybe it should, but I have to admit, sometimes it also makes me think of Boromir, blowing his great horn in the Fellowship of the Ring.
And I certainly don't mean to dismiss your interpretation, in fact, I'm inclined to agree with you about the futility of most wars. My larger point is really just that without the opening to the overture (without the strings), you only have the bombast, not the tragedy. And something profound is lost.
ah, I got it now. It`s interesting (though perfectly natural) that Americans and Eurpeans would asosciate the work with differnt aspects of history. Enriched my day.
1812 played by a band, without the intro? Probably part of the reason, especially for a holiday concert, was to avoid scaring the audience. That part is slow, after all, and it's not conducive to fireworks. Can't challenge the American 3-minute attention span. We took our family to a July 4th concert a few years ago, partly because they were (heavily) advertising Beethoven's 5th. Turned out to be the first movement only, minus the repeats. Yuck. I think if they had been able to hire a Madonna look-alike to sing the damn thing they would have. Frankly, I find that condescending, and I think the audience picks up on the condescension, even if they don't know how much the music is being watered down for them. The noisy part of the Tchaikovsky is much more effective when it follows the solemn part, no?
My favorite version of the "1812" is the one where the intro is sung by a chorus a cappella. The music there is a liturgical chant... very dramatic when sung....also, it takes a good chorus, since the orchestra comes in on the last note they sing... and it better be on pitch or .......!!
The Dallas Symphony has recorded this and it is really nice!
Karen - great blog, as usual. I think it is a wonderful idea to let your daughter try other instruments. While we string players always think ours are the best, kids can get the same pleasure we get out of other ways of making music. It is important to be open, as you are, to the possibility that they will fall in love with a different instrument. Good work, Mom.
Karen, your blog and your ensuing discussion with Buri really made me think. I've never associated the 1812 Overture with sadness and deaths in war. I've always listened to it as the triumph of the good guys (Russians, in this case) over the bad guys (Napoleon and the French). It just sounded like a grand celebration, and cannons and fireworks just added to the spirit of the music. Obviously, my reaction was somewhat immature because I didn't really think about what was going on. I thank you and Buri for jolting me into thinking.
I also enjoyed the personal aspects of your blog -- visiting an old friend, your daughter's attraction to the piccolo, and memories of your childhood experiences on the Fourth of July.
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