Ahead of the National Symphony Orchestra’s annual performance at the National Memorial Day Concert, broadcasted live on PBS each year, musician Glenn Garlick shares some memories of playing at the U.S. Capitol. Watch this year’s National Memorial Day Concert live at 8 p.m. on PBS. Check local listings.
I have been in the NSO since 1980 so I have played a lot of Capitol concerts. My memories of early concerts on the Capitol grounds are mixed…I am not sure which were Memorial Day, July Fourth or Labor Day. It seems to me that in the beginning we did not differentiate the holidays so much. Rather, we played a concert of generally light classical music for anyone who wanted to attend, with a lot of American classics (Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin) mixed in.
One problem with an outdoor concert is that Nature sometimes takes over and spills a lot of water on everyone. One such concert was due to be conducted by our then-Music Director, Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich. Rain was predicted for the evening and our management was in constant contact with the weather service to determine if we should cancel the concert or try to fit it in before the storm arrived. The concert was scheduled for 8:00 p.m. and, if the weather service was correct, the storm would sweep through at 8:00. But, the prediction was that at 8:00 there would be about 20 minutes of very heavy rain followed by a beautiful, cool evening. Our manager, Henry Fogel, announced to the crowd that heavy rain was on the way, but if they could last it out and stay, we would still play. A huge cheer went up from the crowd and everyone hunkered down and covered up as much as possible.
As predicted, by 8:00 sheets and sheets of rain poured down on the Capitol. By 8:10, several hundred people had formed a conga line and were dancing in the rain. We in the orchestra, standing on the stage under our tent and doing our best to protect our instruments, saw a portly gentleman rush from the side of the stage, throw off his shirt, and join the conga line. It was Slava, our music director! He had heard about this audience that was dancing in a rain storm to wait for a concert and he could not stop himself from joining in the spirit. He later said to the orchestra that he wanted such people at every concert, who would wait through a downpour to hear music.
As time went on the first two Capitol Concerts (for Memorial Day and Fourth of July) began to take on more definition. July Fourth was always a celebration of our birth and history as a nation, but Memorial Day became more focused on our servicemen and women and veterans. Also included, a moving and often heart-wrenching segment dedicated to those who had lost their lives in service to the country.
In the meantime, the audience size expanded enormously. Estimates for the first Capitol Concert in 1979 ranged from 8,000 to 22,000. Now the crowds are more likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. It is said that 700,000 people flock to the various celebrations in the Capitol for July Fourth, and it is easy to imagine that similarly large crowds come for the Memorial Day celebration.
Erich Kunzel (1935 – 2009), director of the NSO Capitol Concerts from 1991 until 2009, once remarked that the United States seems to have two anthems. Our national anthem, “Star Spangled Banner,” is a stirring reminder of our birth as a nation. It is notoriously difficult to sing because of its wide range and operatic leaps. In fact, the most successful performances at the Capitol Concerts have been by opera singers like Harolyn Blackwell. The lyrics, Kunzel noted, were also addressed to the battles that marked the birth of our nation with words like “rockets red glare” and “Bombs bursting in air.”
The other American song that usually appears in proximity with the anthem is “America the Beautiful,” to remind of our country’s unique beauty and spirit.
My memory of beautiful Memorial Day ceremonies predates my time in the NSO. I served in the Marine Band from 1971 to 1975 so I was one of the musicians who played for the special dinner celebration held at the White House in May 1973, when President Nixon welcomed home the freed prisoners of war from Vietnam. It was a emotional ceremony as our servicemen and their families expressed their gratitude and joy at coming home.
Memorial Day is a day for such celebrations, for servicemen who have come home, for families who are reunited, and also for the more sober remembrance and salute to those who will not come home, or who return with injuries that affect lives and livelihoods.
The NSO Memorial Day concert on the mall pays tribute to our servicemen around the world, and sends a musical message to the men and women of our armed forces that we know about and appreciate their service.