PBS makes great television out of Baltimore's 'Star-Spangled' concert

Marin Alsop's Baltimore Symphony shines in supporting role

  • A moment from 'Great Performances' live production on PBS of Baltimore's "Star-Spangled Spectacular" concert.
A moment from 'Great Performances' live production… (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore…)
September 14, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

"Great Performances," the PBS showcase of American performing arts, came to town for the Star-Spangled Spectacular concert at Pier Six Saturday night and showed how to make great, live television.

On paper, the lineup of talent for the concert celebrating the bicentennial of the national anthem was a very mixed bag: Melissa Etheridge, Denyce Graves-Montgomery, Little Big Town, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers, Kristin Chenoweth, Jordin Sparks, Pentatonix, Paulo Szot, Train, The Navy Band Sea Chanters and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Marin Alsop. John Lithgow was host.

I wondered when I first saw the bill how the folks from "Great Performances" were going to make it all work. I feared with Robinson and Rogers getting headliner status, the production would have the feel of a fund-raiser directed at baby boomers -- a genre that's going to kill PBS if it doesn't find a better way to raise money.

But not only did they make it work, despite a few uneven and ragged moments, they made it soar onscreen from time to time. And amid all the talent, no performer or group came across better onscreen than Alsop and her musicians. What a marvelous showcase this two-hour live concert turned out to be for the incredible range of this orchestra.

The Baltimore Symphony went from laying down a delicate, sensitive and soft carpet of sound for Graves-Montgomery on "Summertime," to supplying enough drive to bring the tent full of concertgoers to their feet at the end of Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears." And, believe me, it was the percussive power of the music that did it, not Robinson's ancient voice.

Speaking of "The Tracks of My Tears," let's hear it for the two women from the Navy Sea Chanters who sang the parts of the Miracles.

Alsop did the same things with Rogers, wrapping him in such a protective blanket of sound you almost didn't notice that there was very little left of the voice that once seemed to be playing on the radio every time you turned it on.

But there were some big, big voices here as well, and they lit up the production: Chenoweth and Szot doing "Make Our Garden Grow" (with more help from the Navy Sea Chanters), Sparks singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" (with help from the Morgan State University Choir) and Etheridge performing "Take My Number."

And, again, all were superbly backed by Alsop's orchestra. Really, this is not homer talk, because readers of this blog - and my work in The Sun - know I am just as happy to celebrate TV productions that make Baltimore people and institutions look bad when it's deserved.

But in TV terms, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra could not have looked and sounded better in its ability to gracefully flow through not just different musical genres, from show tunes to R&B, but even get the nuances of different musical idioms.

In fact, my one major disappointment of the night came when Alsop and her musicians started into the overture to Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," and after only 32 seconds of it, director Paul Miller cut away for a speech by that gasbag Joe Biden.

I am not questioning Miller's call for one second. You have to cover the vice president of the United States who was speaking on another stage -- you have to. But it was a typical empty Biden performance. (Let's leave it right there, as the cable anchors say.)

But as the orchestra joyously started in the overture, I thought, "Oh man, Alsop's reaching for Bernstein now, and she's on such a roll tonight, she's going to catch him. And I'm going to see and hear it on live TV."

But, no, instead of seeing her reach for Bernstein, I got Joe blah-blah-blah Biden.

Such are the vagaries of live TV.

Still, I love the energy of live TV that Miller's direction captured in the Baltimore concert Saturday night.

And what a great showcase for Baltimore. The images of the Inner Harbor aglow under a massive display of fireworks, as the BSO performed Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" are priceless. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake should give up all her amateur-hour attempts to produce up-with-Baltimore productions with city money and just reproduce those images and that sound from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over and over again.

It has been quite a week for Baltimore on the national TV stage, starting with TMZ posting the Ray Rice elevator video on Monday, a story that led the evening newscasts every night until the end of the week.

I thought Baltimore looked pretty good Thursday night in the primetime premiere on CBS of "Thursday Night Football," a telecast that was seen by a huge audience of 20.8 million.

I can guarantee PBS won't draw anywhere near those kinds of numbers for Star-Spangled Spectacular.

But the city could not have asked for two hours of primetime TV that made it look more vibrant, thriving, culturally rich and diverse than PBS gave it Saturday.

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