The Philly Pops plucked the reliably resonant strings of patriotism Sunday night. How could it have been otherwise? Using Independence Hall as a heady backdrop, with an estimated 15,000 listeners stretched across the mall, the Pops were back for their annual sound track to Independence Day festivities.
Conductor Michael Krajewski presided over a program of Americana very much like the ones of years past. Yet if something was different this time, that something was us. The political realm has become unrecognizable since our last musical gathering at this birthplace of a great idea for a nation, and it was hard to escape the thought that what kind of America you listened for had at least something to do with the America you see us becoming.
Music is mirror. Who did listeners sense peering back? The amplified words of John F. Kennedy, Lincoln, Washington, and the Declaration of Independence in James Beckel's orchestral piece Liberty for All came over the mall as a dignified redress to so much of the poison that has escaped into the atmosphere lately. Singer Justin Hopkins was the dramatic narrator.
And if America idealized is the image of waving flags silhouetted against a brightly lit Independence Hall, the Pops sent those patriots home with a sound track of "God Bless America" still ringing in their ears and beating in their hearts.
There's something startlingly hokey and old-fashioned about the Pops' programming at these concerts - this was the 15th year - and the music could come from any number of days gone by. The audience looked largely young, and yet From Sea to Shining Sea, a musical tour across America crafted by Robert Wendel, was a name-that-tune medley likely to confound anyone who has not yet opened the mail to find an AARP card. "Carolina in the Morning"? "Tennessee Waltz"? Some of these melodies must have been meeting virgin ears. Even so, it was nice to see the Pops handing them off to a new generation.
And if you closed your eyes during the George M. Cohan medley, you'd have sworn the Voices of the Philly Pops had arrived on loan from Lawrence Welk.
Patriotic tunes - "This Is My Country," "Stars and Stripes Forever" - were to be expected.
But for my money it was vocalist Allison Blackwell who made the evening. In a luscious orchestration of Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," the Pops and Blackwell created one of those great city moments when everything seems to stop. The sounds of goodness, sincerity and warmth poured forth. Someone, please, put these qualities in a bottle. We may really need them when the Pops returns this time next year.