Since our Revolutionary ancestors whistled “Yankee Doodle” as they blasted away at their British foes, patriotic music has always been a key ingredient in the glue that binds these United States together. Sung around Civil War campfires, taught to immigrants hoping for a better life, now broadcast endlessly from sea to shining sea, songs such as “America,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and (of course) “The Star Spangled Banner” still retain a mysterious power to arouse those proud and tender passions that we call patriotism and love of country.
On a grand scale, almost the entire repertoire of American patriotic music passed in review at Ballard Park on July Fourth, as the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus entertained and elevated an estimated 15,000 spectators, plus a TV audience of several hundred thousand. Expertly directed by TSO music director emeritus Eric Knight and brilliantly produced by Tupelo’s own WTVA and Stagelite Sound from Pelahatchie, the quality of this year’s performance was definitely the best ever.
Most noticeable was the vastly improved sound system. An orchestra of 85 plus chorus of over 50 can flood a concert hall with sound, yet in an outdoor setting such as Ballard Park this same ensemble is scarcely audible at a distance of 100 feet. The trick is to amplify the sound to normal listening levels for the audience, yet keep the fresh, distinctive blending of human voices and instrumental colors that is the glory of a full symphony orchestra and chorus.
Even with all the refinements of modern technology, this is no easy problem to solve. Placement of microphones so each musical section — strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and chorus — can be skillfully blended into a lifelike whole by the sound engineer is as much an art as a science. If done well, and pumped out through banks of speakers capable of handling the tremendous electronic loads without distortion, the effect on an audience can be magical. The music sounds so natural – both in soft passages and in thrilling crescendos — that its passage through complex electronic circuitry and processing is totally forgotten.
In a Saturday morning interview, conductor Eric Knight himself indirectly confirmed the effect of the improved technology, as well as his own excellent musical programming. “You know,” he said, “this was the best July Fourth audience we’ve had in the eight years I’ve been coming here. There were fewer people milling around during the performance; people seemed much more attentive.”
Lasting almost two hours, from 8 to 10 p.m., the TSO’s salute to America’s 227th birthday was indeed well received by the huge audience in Ballard Park.
Two types of music are usually associated with American patriotic occasions: songs which specifically deal with the greatness and love of the United States, and music by American composers such as Stephen Foster and Aaron Copeland which evoke a strong feeling of connection to America and its history. Add to this some military tunes and sentimental favorites like “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” – plus a moving version of “Amazing Grace” dedicated to U.S. forces serving overseas — and it’s hard not to win a audience already intent on patriotic celebration.
Many of the selections were combined into medleys arranged by Knight himself, who is known in musical circles throughout the country as a skillful orchestrator and composer. In a final burst of glory – and just before the fireworks began on the dot of 10 p.m. – the TSO concluded with John Philip Sousa’s famous “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Shortly before, as Knight was making his parting announcements to the audience, an unknown spectator shouted “You the Man, Eric!” There was widespread applause.
Bruce Smith is a Tupelo resident who reviews Tupelo Symphony performances for the Daily Journal.