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Let the notes for the nation ring out true

February 18, 2014

By Lynda Hollenbeck

Last week, in advance of the big game, I noted that I'm not a fan of the Super Bowl. I'm in that minuscule minority of folks who had to check the newspaper to see who was playing. I didn't have a preference on the winner, so I was just as happy with the Seahawks winning as I would have been if the honor had gone to the Broncos.
That being said, I do have a verbal bouquet to pass out to the people who made the decision to ask a trained singer to do the national anthem this year.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" is not an easy piece to sing. It jumps an octave and a half and, for many, many singers, that's just a couple of jumps too many.
This year, though, it was done to perfection by Metropolitan Opera star Renee Fleming, who is gorgeous and sings like an angel.
A world-renowned lyric soprano, she has had all the classical training and experience needed to perform the anthem or anything else she might want to sing. She's appeared on the world's most prestigious stages — the Met and Carnegie Hall in New York, La Scala in Milan, Buckingham Palace in London, Opera Bastille in Paris, Berlin Philharmonic in London and numerous others.
During Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast, she gave a flawless rendition of Francis Scott Key's piece. Mainly, she sang it pretty much the way it was written — with just an added flourish at the end — which is a novel approach in these times in which so many others have felt the need to rearrange the piece that absolutely needs no modification.
In talking about performing the piece, Fleming acknowledged that it is difficult and, in that particular setting, outdoors before the whole world, the pressure is practically beyond measure.
The national anthem can trip up even the best of singers, as my late friend and favorite singer, Robert Goulet, once proved. He noted that the late Nat King Cole had advised him that "if you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ball game."
There was good reason for those words of wisdom.
Goulet gave perfect renditions of the piece many times during his career, but it included an unfortunate faux pas before the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali (known then as Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston.
With a slip of the lip, he didn't sing "the dawn's early light." What came out instead was "the dawn's early night," which makes no sense, but once done, it's done. And he did it.
I would have loved it anyway.
One thing Ms. Fleming did that was really smart: She wisely used recorded accompaniment, the next best thing to a live instrumental group. An increasingly common error for national anthem singers is to do it a cappella. Few — make that VERY few — can stay on pitch for the duration of the song. This is usually so apparent that even non-musicians notice it. To someone with perfect pitch (from a hearing standpoint as I am so cursed), it's torture.
When there's no way to get a full orchestra to accompany the anthem, one can get by with a trumpeter or two to give it the brass sound it needs. I've done that before when there was no keyboard around, but I NEVER would dare try it unaccompanied. It's just not smart.
Ms. Fleming was backed, via recording, by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and a chorus of singers from four branches of the armed forces. One can't get much better than that.
Hearing Ms. Fleming sing the anthem — or anything I've ever heard her do — is a totally pleasurable experience.
Her showing at the Super Bowl was in marked contrast to other performances in which singers have butchered the piece from beginning to end.
It's just not a song for the faint of heart. It takes sustained breathing, good diction and, if done correctly, a desire to make everyone proud to be an American.
On Sunday, Renee Fleming made me proud.

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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