Delaware’s annual July 4 concert is a treasured tradition and a true community event. Over the past 32 years, some 150,000 people have enjoyed the shows put on by the Central Ohio Symphony. In recent years, attendance has numbered between 6,000 and 8,000 annually. The free concerts are the Symphony’s way to thank Delaware for the strong support it has always given to the orchestra, according to Executive Director Warren W. Hyer.
For the 32nd time, the Symphony performed another riveting concert on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University on July 4, 2017. Once again thousands were in attendance at the outdoor event, enjoying patriotic American songs, marches, and orchestral works. Jaime Morales-Matos was the musical director and conductor while Ric Stranges (Principal at Delaware Hayes High School) served as host and commentator.
The concert offered a representative cross-section of folksy and lighthearted American music, as the occasion warranted. Some of the pieces went deeper and hinted at battles and bloodshed. The evening started appropriately with Aaron Copland’s memorable “Fanfare for the Common Man” that features multiple trumpets. It was followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by Jeanette Ferguson. The Columbus native, a cancer survivor, is not a professional singer, but her strong and confident voice filled Phillips Glen. She later also sang “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s musical “Porgy and Bess.” Other openly patriotic pieces included “The Armed Forces Salute,” in the arrangement by Bob Lowden and performed without words, and Edwin Bagley’s “National Emblem March.” No Fourth-of-July concert would be complete without at least one work by “March King” John Philip Sousa. The Symphony played both the “Washington Post March” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The brass and percussion section got a good work-out with all these patriotic fanfares, salutes, and marches, but they consistently sounded crisp and clear.
Brooklyn composer Ben Goldberg has collaborated with the Symphony for many years. He values the interaction with audiences and came to Delaware to conduct the first live public performance of his serene “Walk of Champions” himself. Another interesting choice was the theme music that Elmer Bernstein wrote for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one of America’s iconic films. On July 4, the U.S. celebrates the emancipation, freedom, and independence of all Americans, including minorities. The beautiful piece is quiet and pensive, but unfortunately if you didn’t sit close enough to the orchestra you may not have heard some of the subtleties. Additional musical selections included “Horse and Buggy” by Leroy Anderson, composer of “Sleigh Ride,” a “Salute to the Big Apple” in the arrangement by Calvin Custer, and Morton Gould’s jazzy “Pavanne” from his Symphonette No. 2.
It also was a joy to hear the rarely performed official state song, “Beautiful Ohio.” The languid waltz evokes a canoe trip on the Buckeye State’s rivers and lakes and was composed by “Mary Earl” (Robert A. King) early last century. Unfortunately, the 1989 update of the original lyrics did not improve the state song, and so it was perhaps best that it was played without words.
The only two pieces not composed by Americans were Hector Berlioz’ “Hungarian March” from his “Damnation of Faust” and Peter I. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which the Symphony has been performing for many years, complete with a dozen or more “cannon shots” at the end, expertly set off by the Delaware Fire Department. The piece celebrates Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812. It is also musically an interesting battle between Russian and French imperial tunes as well as a church hymn. In the end, the French “Marseillaise” is vanquished, and the Russian anthem emerges as the triumphant victor. Ric Stranges said the overture had patriotic significance for all who hope “to live without oppression.” Historically speaking, it is an open question whether the Slavic peasantry would have been better off under French emperors or Russian tsars. But as is often the case, the symbolism imbued in the music trumps the historical truth. Although the “1812 Overture” was followed by the “Stars and Stripes Forever” march by John Philip Sousa, it clearly was the culmination of the evening and a transition to the fireworks that followed the Symphony.
The audience was an integral part of the show as well. There was constant coming and going, eating and drinking. Children were playing, dogs were barking, and people had animated conversations with friends. Somehow, however, all of the commotion and merriment was an expected part of the festivities. In 2015, a concertgoer complained in a letter to this newspaper about people being too loud and disrespectful to the music. It is certainly true that not everyone was transfixed and transformed by the performance. However, people were clearly appreciative of the music being brought to them and eager to partake in the positive spirit of Independence Day. They came not just for the music. They also came for the fellowship it offered and the transcendental experience it involved. The Symphony helped create a magical moment of community spirit in a sylvan setting, under an almost full moon, complete with lighting bugs.
The political climate is not exactly civil at the moment, but events such as this one prove that America’s inner core is still intact and robust. Decent Americans are united in their opposition to ruthless tyrants such as the British King George III who flouted the law, curtailed free trade, restricted immigration, and was “not fit to lead a free nation,” as the 1776 Declaration of Independence pointed out. On July 4, the bitter partisan divide was temporarily suspended. Men and women, whites and blacks, Republicans and Democrats were momentarily of the same heart and mind. The star-spangled banner does still proudly wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., teaches foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.