Monday, July 4, 2011

A Fifth of Fourth

It's the Fourth of July. If you're in DC, it's a time for fireworks on the Mall, which means traffic jams all over town as people try to find a good spot to watch. In Boston, the same ritual is played out on the south side of the Charles River, on the Esplanade where there is a bandshell, and that's the place where Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops set up for their annual Fourth of July shindig. It's a time for picnics, sparklers, mosquito repellent and all the things that make Summer a patriotic season. It's a time when half a million Bostonians gather - which, given the muck on which the Back Bay was founded, is helpful for surcharging the grounds.

In July, MIT students are back at home or otherwise away from the campus, but a few hardy souls (those with summer jobs or nothing better to do) hang around all summer. They're as patriotic as the next person, although the next person in Cambridge is likely to be a Young Spartacist and determined to smash the state. That doesn't mean they can't enjoy a nice fireworks display, especially when it is accompanied by all your favorite pop ditties rendered senseless by the Pops. John Philip Sousa, W.C. Handy, Burt Bacharach, Lee Greenwood (okay, maybe not him) - the Pops will play them all. Plus, they will render a stirring rendition of Tchaikowsky's "1812 Overture", complete with cannon.
I went to a performing arts high school - with some serious classical musicians. They were serious cut-ups. They had no respect for the Pops at all. They considered Fiedler and his Pops akin to Percy Faith and his orchestra - who could still be found in the Classical section of certain Texas record shops even into the 1980's. As every serious classical musician knew, Percy Faith made elevator music.
But Arthur Fiedler had one champion in our high school - Edward Trongone, who was a teacher of instrumental music and conductor of our orchestra, wind ensemble and stage band. Trongone was known to us as "Mr. T" and he looked like this...

"Watch that intonation, sucker!"

Er, this...
"I pity the foo' who interrupts my rehearsal!"

Trongone was short, animated Bostonian who looked a bit like a penguin when he was conducting the orchestra. He had a thick accent ("Hahns! What am I heah foh!?") that I only figured out when I got to Boston and heard others of its type. But Mr. T knew a lot about the music business and had a lot of stories to tell about being a musician and a conductor. He could talk about greats like Stan Kenton and Mitch Miller (who we even got to meet personally), and he aspired to send his students on to careers as storied as theirs. But first they were going to have to work on their intonation and get rid of those scrapey horn sounds. He told us about the bad old days, when the musicians had to form a union and fight to get royalties on their recordings. He also told us about the Pops. Mr. T was a big fan of Arthur Fiedler, even if we weren't.
Arthur Fiedler died in 1979, a year after I graduated from MIT, but the Pops play on. Fiedler's immediate successor was John Williams, which meant a lot of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" themes were added to the program. These days, Keith Lockhart holds the baton, as he has since 1995. If you hurry, you can still make it over to the Esplanade from the 'Tute before the festivities begin.
But what is it we celebrate on this day? A lot of the holiday is given over to fireworks, patriotic music and above all military displays. Advertisers seem to find this holiday (and Memorial Day) as a good time to recognize the troops, whom they can't seem to recognize at any other time of the year. Our patriotic merchandisers find this holiday a good time to honor America by putting everything on sale (in a similar vein, they honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with big bargains on new cars). But it seems only appropriate to honor the founding documents on which this country was based, supposedly. Politicians come, politicians go, the economy goes up, the economy goes down, but one thing remains constant - the idea behind the United States, which was embodied in a Declaration of Independence some 235 years ago today, and in a Constitution that is still the law of the land over two centuries later. Even in the worst of times, they remain as the documents that bind us together. After all, we've had bad times before, but the country did not fold.
The cartoon above was drawn in 1982, when unemployment skyrocketed to 10.8% by Christmas. A year earlier, the Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies and Royals had won their respective divisions during a strike-shortened season, but the summer of 1982 was very cruel to them, and none of them made the playoffs.

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