FORT WORTH It is a real gathering.
Excited folks arrived at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden on Wednesday night from all directions, filling the relatively narrow green that stretches back from the stage for hundreds of yards. This was the first of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s three Old Fashioned Family Fireworks Picnic concerts, a popular outing for patriotic-themed Fourth of July festivities.
Recorded music welcomed the crowd. Proud To Be an American alternated incongruously with ’60s protest folk ( Turn, Turn Turn).
Under the able baton of Andres Franco, associate conductor of the FWSO, the musicians launched into The Star-Spangled Banner and moved right along to a clap-along version of John Philip Sousa’s The Liberty Bell march. They played a medley from that great American opera West Side Story, which always impresses. Ferde Grofé’s overly programmatic Kentucky Derby brought a smile.
Major Attaway, a lyric tenor/baritone with a pleasant voice, sang an operatic take on some Steven Foster songs. Aaron Copland’s Hoe-down from Rodeo got an energetic performance. A moving experience was created by a medley of anthems of the branches of the U.S. armed forces. Veterans were asked to stand when the appropriate music was played. They all received warm applause.
What could follow that but more Sousa ( Semper Fidelis, of course)?
The second half began to lead to the fireworks, but it started with two original pieces. James Stephenson’s American Fanfare was an exciting blast from the start to the final stinger. Composer/trombonist James Beckel’s Coplandish Liberty for All set patriotic texts read by a narrator to music played by a brass-heavy orchestra. Attaway was a much stronger presence here as he solemnly intoned words from the sacred canon of our country over Beckel’s rambling score. His excellent diction let us clearly hear Abraham Lincoln, Patrick Henry, George Washington and the preamble to the Constitution (with a subtle and touching emphasis on “all men are created equal.”). All were inspiring, but it was President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not” admonishment that brought applause.
Attaway’s operatic approach worked better on Irving Berlin’s surefire God Bless America. Many stood, with hands on hearts, as though it was equal to the national anthem. A setting of America the Beautiful had a huge flag background and ended with a bang — literally.
More Sousa accompanied an extravagantly marvelous fireworks display.
Outdoor concerts like this, with the blaring amplified orchestra, are not about musical subtlety. They are the opposite of the so-called concert experience. By the end, we were all friends with those around us. This is not to suggest that we have picnic lunches in Bass Hall, but there is something to be learned from the feeling of community that such concerts can create.