Saturday, August 16, 2008

Almost Perfect

Michael Phelps didn't break the world record in winning his 100m butterfly race -- not in speed, that is. He may have broken the record for incredible and dramatic finishes, winning by the length of his fingernails as he out-touched his opponent by 1/100 of a second.

But what I want to discuss today is the rendition of our National Anthem chosen for these games, which Phelps and his relay teammates have brought us 7 times now. It sounds easy to choose a recording of a song that's only 90 seconds, but really, rendering the anthem is a minefield of stylistic choices. I don't know who produced the recording that's being used for Beijing, but they did a fine job, with just one questionable choice.

The brassy opening, with the strings added at "whose broad stripes," is just what is wanted for this kind of event -- majestic, imposing, powerful, but not arrogant. It bespeaks confidence and satisfaction in victory, without getting in the face of the international crowd. Slow, rolling, with minimal ornamentation, the music says that we are great and proud and respectful all at once.

Things go somewhat wrong, in my view, as the rendition switches to stringy sentimentality in the "rockets red glare" section. Suddenly, we're all supposed to have tears in our eyes, and a little xylophone trill or some similar ornament added behind the word "air" is particularly sappy, like something out of a Disney movie.

Fortunately, this only lasts 20 seconds or so, less than a quarter of the recording, and then it's a return to majestic full orchestra for a clear run into the ending, at which point there's a surprise -- a three-note highlight on the last word, "brave." Now, ordinarily, I wouldn't like this kind of thing -- I can't abide the octave jump that's become common on the word "free" -- but somehow it works in this setting. It tells everyone that we are Americans, after all, and we have a little showmanship in everything we do.

With cheesiness on one side and excessive jingoism on the other, it isn't easy to play the anthem for the Olypmics. Nice job.

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