Thursday, March 9, 2017

Black History Month and Presidents' Day Marcch 6, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

March 9, 2017

Black History Month and Presidents’ Day

I usually don’t pay much attention to occasions like Black History Month and Presidents Day, but this year I enjoyed special events from both of them on back to back days. On Sunday, February 19, we went to Dormont to the Hollywood Theater to see a classic silent movie, “The Flying Ace”.

The theater is operated by the Friends of the Hollywood Theater, a non-profit organization whose mission is to celebrate cinema and preserve the single-screen theater experience. It began life as a silent movie theater in the 1920s and currently is one of a very few surviving single-screen theaters in this area.

One of their programs is a series of silent movies, with background music specially composed and performed by local pianist Tom Roberts. This month they selected a film made specifically for African American audiences in 1924, directed by an African American director, and featuring an all African American cast. This is an example of a genre completely different from the stereotypical picture of the African American in Hollywood films of that era.

The film itself was completely color blind; it could have been produced with an all-white cast without changing a single scene. It featured a World War I flying ace who had retired to his civilian job as a railroad detective and was presented with a classic case to solve.

Mr. Roberts’ accompaniment was totally appropriate to the plot and complemented the action on the screen perfectly. The music alone was well worth the price of admission. He is indeed a remarkable musician, composer and performer.

If the only objective of the presentation had been to expose a white audience to a hitherto unfamiliar facet of the African American experience a century ago, it would have been a rousing success. Combined with a well-done, entertaining movie, the marvelous musical accompaniment, and the nostalgic neighborhood theater environment, it was an outstanding event.

The next evening we celebrated Presidents Day by going to Carnegie for a very enjoyable concert by the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra, at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall. The program, with one exception, focused on Americana and especially on our nineteenth century heritage.

The exception was the opening number, Bizet’s Carmen Suite #1. This obviously is a feature in the orchestra’s repertoire, providing excellent opportunities for flute, oboe, and trumpet principals to demonstrate their skills. The finale, Les Toreadors, was particularly impressive.

The next selection was Morton Gould’s “American Salute”, a rousing piece incorporating variations on the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Local Pirate baseball fans will remember Vince Lascheid playing this melody when second baseman Johnny Ray came to bat years ago.

Mezzo soprano Katharine Soroka then performed five songs from Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs”. Her powerful, well controlled voice was shown off at its best on “Long Time Ago” and “At the River”. “Simple Gifts” was well done, but an appropriate vehicle for a singer of her caliber. The audience also enjoyed two novelty songs – “I Bought Me a Cat” and “Ching-a-Ring Chaw”.

The Largo from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” featured the English Horn playing the poignant “Going Home” theme, continuing the Americana mood eloquently. At this point Conductor Warren Davidson handed his baton to Patrick Forsythe, to conduct a powerful rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and set the scene for the “piece de resistance”, Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”.

Conductor Davidson returned to the podium and was joined by Andrew Masich, CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, for the finale. Written in 1942, “Lincoln Portrait” is a magnificent orchestral work constructed to accompany a recitation of excerpts from various speeches by Abraham Lincoln, concluding with one from the Gettysburg Address. Mr. Masich is the latest in a roster of famous personages to perform this recitation. 

The music was excellent, just the right background for Lincoln’s pronouncements. Copland quoted bits from contemporary folk songs and from Stephen Collins Foster so tastefully that they seemed to be inherent parts of the composition. Nonetheless the eloquence of Lincoln’s statements overpowered the music and reinforced the exalted opinion we all have of our sixteenth president.

All told, it was a fine way to spend a Presidents Day evening. The Civic Orchestra is outstanding – it is difficult to realize that the performers are all volunteers. Ms. Soroka and Mr. Masich each added significantly to the overall event. Maggie Forbes, Executive Director of the Free Library and Music Hall, and everyone else involved in it are to be commended for “a good job, well done”.

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend events like these in local community venues. Both of them managed to provide relevance for the holidays they commemorated.

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