Music & Remembrance

Performers from pop to opera come together to honor those who died on Sept. 11 as well as those who lived.

September 11, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

WASHINGTON - Thirteen days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Kennedy Center presented a Concert for America in an attempt to honor the victims and provide some comfort to all who mourned them. The event, with first lady Laura Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy as co-costs and a cross-section of classical and pop talent performing deeply meaningful music, seemed to come about almost spontaneously, like so many other gestures of solidarity during that awful, immediate aftermath.

A year later, a second Concert for America - a gathering "to remember and mourn, to honor and celebrate" - was taped Monday at the Kennedy Center. The first lady is back as honorary chair (Kennedy, and niece Caroline, are among the several guest speakers); the talent is again classical and pop, the music again largely message-laden.

If the result seems a little less moving and even a bit calculated when the concert airs at 9 tonight on WBAL, Channel 11, chalk that up to the effects of time and emotional distance. And perhaps a difference in the communicating source - that first concert reached a national audience via public television, the second on a commercial network, NBC, which isn't above slipping in a bit of self-advertising (NBC stars pop up live and on video; Tom Brokaw is the host.)

At least whatever reaches your TV screen tonight will look more cohesive than what Monday's large, invitation-only audience witnessed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where the proceedings were taped for editing into a two-hour broadcast. (A couple hundred more people watched a simulcast at the center's Eisenhower Theater.)

Brokaw's first duty was to announce that the second half of the program would be performed first. This meant that the finale - "America the Beautiful," sung in sumptuous voice by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, with most of the evening's other performers coming onstage for the last chorus - would occur prematurely. So would the closing remarks by President Bush and his wife, not to mention their goodbye waves and parting words of thanks to several participants who hadn't actually done anything yet.

The genial, veteran newscaster blamed the odd ordering on the vagaries of taping a TV show; it was also done to accommodate the president's schedule. He and most of his entourage - which included Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (separated by a wide aisle, as if to keep the speculation going on their differences over Iraq), and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice - didn't stay for the rest of the concert.

The unfortunate rearrangement in programming wasn't the only annoyance for the audience. Frequent delays, especially during the out-of-order first half, seemed to drain some enthusiasm out of the crowd, which included sizable contingents from the New York police and fire departments. The whole thing dragged on for more than three hours.

Of course, even if the concert had been smoothly organized and presented in fleet, proper sequence, the results would have been uneven - unavoidable in any variety-style format. But when the editors get through splicing and dicing, the show is likely to accomplish its mission with as much clarity as sincerity. There was, to be sure, lots of fine material on Monday, and not just of the musical kind.

Video segments (shown for the live audience on a large screen) offered comments from a cross-section of Americans about some of the feelings generated by 9/11. Filmed reminiscences by victims' spouses and children added poignancy; colorful film of the American landscape and post-9/11 gatherings effectively complemented several of the performances.

But the concert part of Concert for America is what counts most. There's no telling exactly how everything will come across on TV, or if some of the performances will get left out of the final broadcast, but here's how it sounded Monday.

The classical artists acquitted themselves well. In addition to Graves, whose restrained phrasing was as impressive as her vocal opulence, there was soprano Renee Fleming, swathed in yards of black fabric that she kept clutched to her throat, giving a lush-toned, compellingly shaded account of "You'll Never Walk Alone." Placido Domingo opened up his time-defying voice for a solid, if rather monochromatic, "Ave Maria."

The National Symphony Orchestra, led with typical attentiveness by music director Leonard Slatkin, provided supple support for those soloists and also delivered a glowing account of the closing portion of Copland's Appalachian Spring. Slatkin and an ensemble of NSO strings provided seamless backup for several of the pop stars as well. (Orchestra and conductor deserved more acknowledgement during the evening, and I hope Brokaw re-tapes his only, mispronounced mention of Slatkin's name.)

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