On the morning of September 14, the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2017-18 season will begin with the sound of a snare drum, rolling into the familiar opening chords of The Star-Spangled Banner, as the audience will rise to sing Francis Scott Key’s lyrics. This season-opening tradition extends back several decades, most often using an orchestration custom-made by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the Orchestra’s music director from 1960 to 1979, who passed away in February of this year.
Skrowaczewski’s A-flat major arrangement, perhaps most distinctive for the piccolo part that brightens the tone color at key moments, has been played at several historic occasions since its creation for Orchestra Hall’s inaugural concert in 1974. High on the list is a performance in Havana during the Orchestra’s landmark Cuba tour in May 2015, in which it was paired with the Cuban national anthem.
The New York Times described the scene of that performance: “After the orchestra took to the stage for its Saturday night concert at the Teatro Nacional, Mr. Vänskä strode out to the podium, turned and faced the audience and, with a gesture, urged the somewhat confused concertgoers to stand. Then he turned to the orchestra and urged them to stand. Then, to audible gasps, the Minnesota Orchestra played the Cuban national anthem, which the audience sang along to lustily. When it was over they cheered loudly.
“The orchestra kept standing and Mr. Vänskä signaled the percussion section. A drumroll began. Then the orchestra began playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ drawing more surprise in the theater, which sits on the Plaza de la Revolución, which for many years was the scene of some of Fidel Castro’s most fiery anti-American speeches. Fewer Cubans seemed to know the lyrics, which were mostly sung by the Americans in the orchestra’s entourage. But when it was over the Cuban members of the audience cheered as well.”
Another memorable performance came at the Orchestra’s first concert after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano recalls that 2001 performance as one of great emotion and unified spirit: “I will always remember the concert that opened the season just days after the World Trade Center fell by the hands of our enemies. The public that attended that concert sang our national anthem with a heartfelt spirit I had never heard before. The petty differences that divided us gave way to a unity that defined ‘E Pluribus Unum.’”
Other historic performances of the anthem include one on America’s 200th birthday of July 4, 1976 (with none other than Aaron Copland conducting), and another at the final concert led by the Orchestra’s founding Music Director Emil Oberhoffer in April 1922, following the conductor’s stirring farewell remarks. During World War I, the Orchestra performed The Star-Spangled Banner to start each of its tour concerts. Performances of the anthem again became regular upon America’s entry into World War II, and have since become a fixture of the Orchestra’s season openings as well as outdoor summer concerts.
Aaron Copland rehearsing the Minnesota Orchestra in July 1976.
Although none of the Orchestra’s ten music directors have been American-born, at least four have produced their own orchestral arrangements on our national anthem: Henri Verbrugghen, Eugene Ormandy, Antal Dorati and Skrowaczewski. Over the years, the Orchestra has also played orchestrations by Igor Stravinsky, Mischa Bregman, Bud Caputo, Walter Damrosch, Arthur Luck and former Minnesota Orchestra Resident Conductor Henry Charles Smith, among others.
Come to our season-opening concerts on September 14, 15 and 16 to hear Skrowaczewski’s orchestration and join in with your own voice.