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Monday, June 7, 2010

MSO & Guests Celebrate America

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The summer pops concert is a staple of American orchestras, and as summer also means the anniversary of the founding of the United States, these concerts are almost always given a patriotic theme. With the musical framework pretty much set due to these expectations, the challenge is to be different somehow from year to year. Thankfully, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Principal Pops Conductor Marvin Hamlisch seem to have met that challenge, for the program of their summer concert consists of some 20 pieces by a variety of composers that celebrate our country.

Leroy Anderson (1908-75) is represented by Bugler’s Holiday (1954), his exuberant gift to trumpet players everywhere that concludes with music reminiscent of the racetrack; and also through Anderson’s arrangement of Seventy-Six Trombones, the signature tune from 1957’s The Music Man by Meredith Willson (1902-84). Concertgoers will get to compare this to Norman Leyden’s arrangement, also on the program.

One of the greatest Civil War era songs is William Steffe’s (1830-90) Battle Hymn of the Republic, heard on this concert via the glorious voices of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorussinging the famed lyrics penned for the tune by Julia Ward Howe in 1861.

A more modern flag-waver came from former R&B musician Lee Greenwood (b. 1942) in 1984—God Bless the USA. Singing this No. 7 country chart hit will be tenor J. Mark McVey, who has previously appeared on Broadway, at Carnegie Hall and with the Boston Pops.

The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus also performs a medley by the first great American composer of popular song, Stephen Foster (1826-64), who consistently struck the rich vernacular vein of his country in such songs as My Old Kentucky Home (1853), Oh, Susanna! (1848) and Beautiful Dreamer (1864). The last of these was actually composed much earlier but discovered after Foster’s untimely death and, published erroneously as his “last song,” gained wide popularity (that popularity certainly well-deserved regardless of its pedigree). The full Milwaukee Symphony Chorus (and in some cases a male vocal quartet from its members) likewise performs works by George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Samuel A. Ward and Woody Guthrie.

America’s rich musical traditions are also evinced in performances of Shay/Fisher/Goodwin’s When You’re Smiling and Turkey in the Straw, courtesy of bluegrass quartet Above the Town. The group comprises five-time Wisconsin Fiddle Champion Jerry Loughney, bassist Brian Baker, guitarist Bill Brenckle and banjo player Jon Peik.

And what American summer pops concert would be complete without hearing from our beloved “March King,” John Philip Sousa (1854-1932). In the present case, it’s one of his most popular and, indeed, officially the “National March of the United States,” Stars and Stripes Forever, which Sousa composed in 1896.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, tenor J. Mark McVey and bluegrass quartet Above the Town perform the above-mentioned and many other works at Uihlein Hall on June 11, 12 and 13.