The Boston Pops pulled out all the stops on Tuesday, May 19, for their much anticipated program, “American Heroes.” At the press conference hours before, conductor Keith Lockhart admitted, “It behooves me not to be star struck,” surrounded as he was by the stellar Robert De Niro, Ed Harris, and Morgan Freeman, each a big fan of the Kennedy brothers whose group portrait, The Dream Lives On, was the evening’s centerpiece.
The sense of occasion, with soloists such as Arlo Guthrie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, each of whom could draw a huge Pops crowd, was heightened by the huge National 9/11 Flag, patched together with some nine smaller flags embedded in it, hung over on the back of the stage.
The Star-Spangled Banner was the musical backdrop for the appearance onstage of New York and Boston firefighters — and Lilly, a now-15-year-old dog — present during the rescue and recovery missions at the World Trade Center on and after 9/11/01. The audience, about to hear upbeat excerpts from Copland’s Appalachian Spring and John Williams’ Liberty Fanfare, and Renese King singing a gospel version of America the Beautiful, was now sufficiently primed for an evening of nostalgia and patriotism.
The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers received its world premiere to much media fanfare. Commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the Boston Pops, this multi-media piece by composer Peter Boyer is a deeply felt homage to what Mr. Lockhart called “the 50-year legacy of the Kennedy brothers.” Kennedy sister Jean was in the audience, and the spirit of brother Joe Jr. was given a nod by Mr. Lockhart for “setting the tone for the rest of the family.”
Boyer, best known for Ellis Island: A Dream of America, is no stranger to inspirational music. After being asked to compose this piece, he traveled to Arlington National Cemetery where he studied the inscriptions of John and Robert Kennedy’s gravesites, many of whose words are set in this piece. Librettist Lynn Ahrens had the unusual task of providing the text to this piece first, to which Boyers’s music would be set. “I’m usually in the same room as the composer,” she noted at the press conference earlier this day. “This was a long-distance date.” Ahrens explained that she wanted to stay out of the brilliance of the Kennedy’s own words, which accompanied still photos projected on a huge screen of the three brothers in their youth and at important moments in their oratorical lives (as well as lovely pictures of the elderly Ted and his two dogs), accompanied by Mr. Boyer’s music — perfect for Pops, very “easy listening,” very Hollywood. It felt a lot — and sounded a lot –like the background music for an Oscar night Lifetime Achievement Award segment. (Boyer has orchestrated music for the Academy Awards.)
The Kennedys’ words were delivered magnificently by Robert De Niro (John F.), Ed Harris (Robert), and Morgan Freeman (Ted). Mr. Freeman’s performance was Oscar-worthy. He nearly stole the show. Actress Cherry Jones spoke as well. On this night of fervent musical patriotism, to love and admire the Kennedys was, it seemed, equated with love of America. Mr. Boyer’s music served this goal well. It was reminiscent of the more “serious” music of John Williams, but without any memorable tunes.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic began within a few nanoseconds of the last note of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, followed by a Patriotic Sing-Along. Finally Brian Stokes Mitchell sang his usual hits, “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime and “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha.
One left Symphony Hall already having forgotten all but the tattered and re-quilted flag, the actors, the dog, and the firefighters. I suspect The Dream Lives On will soon have a life of its own. Where there are audiences who love the Kennedys, there will be a market for this piece. I predict a long life on DVDs.