SPCO concerts are canceled through May 10 in an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

Reflections on “Banner” as it joins our Concert Library

Photo: Jessie Montgomery and the other members Catalyst Quartet joined the SPCO for a performance of Montgomery’s Banner. Watch in the Concert Library

By Kyu-Young Kim, Artistic Director

This week our first concert of the 2017.18 season, streamed live the evening it was performed, joins the offerings available for viewing on-demand, anytime, anyplace through our Concert Library. I am so proud of the SPCO and our growing video library.  The Ginastera and Beethoven works feature the virtuosity of our own players and our recent transformation to a primarily conductor-less ensemble. The concert opened with the premiere of a newly orchestrated version of Jessie Montgomery’s Banner, her multi-cultural take on the national anthem, commissioned by the Sphinx Organization for the 200th anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner.  At the SPCO we believe in celebrating traditions.  After all, so much of the music we play is rooted in traditions. But more and more, we also are questioning traditions and challenging them.   The first time I came across Banner several years ago, I immediately thought that it would be a wonderful twist on the traditional way of opening a season with the Star Spangled Banner.  (Read Rob Hubbard’s review in the Pioneer Press contrasting our start to the season with Minnesota Orchestra’s opener.)

I felt a lot of pride in the SPCO that we were able to start our season with a new work by an incredibly talented African-American woman. Not only did we play Jessie’s piece, but she and her gifted young quartet, Catalyst, comprised of past prize winners of the Sphinx Competition, an annual national competition for young  Black and Latino classical musicians, led the proceedings.

In the rehearsals leading up to the concert, we really delved into the why of the piece. Some of my favorite moments in rehearsals were when we put our instruments down and tried some outside-the-box rehearsal techniques. We marched to get the feel of being in a drum line, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to get inside the words and not just the rhythms. The rhythms of the pledge are played at various points in the piece including the climax. I’m pretty sure that it is the only time the SPCO has ever recited the Pledge of Allegiance at a rehearsal!

Everyone stood for the pledge of allegiance, as Pinchas Zukerman led the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the opening concert of the Ordway Music Theatre (as it was called at the time), on Jan. 9, 1985.

Jessie explained what inspired her in writing a piece to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the national anthem. As she writes so eloquently in her program note, “For most Americans the song represents a paradigm of liberty and solidarity against fierce odds, and for others it implies a contradiction between the ideals of freedom and the realities of injustice and oppression.” Isn’t that in a nutshell what the NFL/anthem controversy is all about? Jessie also provides an elegant way out: “A tribute to the national anthem means acknowledging the contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.”

Some audience members told me that they had trouble hearing the national anthem in Banner. The actual melody of the Star Spangled Banner appears toward the end of the piece, but it is virtually buried in a mélange of folk tunes—This land is your land, Lift every voice and sing, Cumberland Gap and the Puerto Rican, Mexican and Cuban anthems—in a style reminiscent of Charles Ives. It’s a joyful noise that is sometimes discordant, but at the same time, inclusive, celebratory, idealistic and ultimately, utterly American.

Before we engage in too much self-congratulations, we should remind ourselves that, since Banner, almost every piece we’ve performed this season has been by a white male composer. The two exceptions have been Toru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia played at the end of October and Caroline Shaw’s Entr’Acte last weekend. We have a long way to go before our programming and the musicians on stage reflect the diversity of our community. I hope that Banner can serve not only as a point of departure, but as a source of inspiration and a positive rallying cry for all of us at the SPCO looking to the work ahead.

Watch Banner in the Concert Library