Ed Siegel

Oh Canada, you’re playing my song

By Ed Siegel
February 25, 2010

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DOESN’T IT seem that NBC announcers, among their many sins, take particular delight in the Olympic failures of our neighbors to the north? It’s as if every drama, particularly every NBC drama, needs a counterpoint to its America First coverage, whether it’s ice hockey or women’s skiing.

I, for one, am not buying NBC’s Limbaugh-ing of the Olympics. In fact, Monday night I found myself rooting for the Canadian ice dancing team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir over Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White with a passion I didn’t know I had for the Winter Olympics.

Why? Well, of course, the skating was spectacular and their poise letter-perfect. But what got me was the choice of music. In a world of sap here was one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever written - Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony. Virtue and Moir probably did more for old Gustav than anyone since Leonard Bernstein half a century ago. Bernstein was notorious for drawing the music out to funereal proportions - he played it on the day of Robert Kennedy’s burial.

But the music was purportedly written as a love letter to Alma Schindler. (It worked, she married him.) And it’s that more loving sweep that came to mind in the hands (and feet) of Virtue and Moir, as their lifts and skating took on the high romance of grand opera.

Meanwhile, what did America’s team dance to? Cue the Grand Guignol organ - Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.’’ Isn’t that reason enough to root for Canadians? “Phantom’’ isn’t quite as flatulent as most of Lloyd Webber’s poperas, but it’s still mush compared to Mahler with all those pompous swells, portentous hushes, and sugary sentiments. Where Mahler’s music is transcendent, Lloyd Webber’s is strictly earthbound.

Snobbery? I think musical taste says a lot about a person. And a country. The aptly named Virtue was doubly rewarded when the Canadians took the stand and they and the stadium, seemingly as one entity, belted out the gold-medal national anthem, “O Canada.’’ OK, the lyrics aren’t much, but compared to “The rockets’ red glare / The bombs bursting in air’’? All wrapped in a tune that’s barely singable for all but the country’s best voices?

Not that I won’t root for a talented American like Evan Lysacek (and he skated to Stravinsky’s “Firebird’’) or a likable US team like this year’s hockey squad. But it will be with the wary knowledge that the NBC hype machine will be working overtime, particularly since bringing Al Michaels over from ABC.

Do you believe in miracles? No. I don’t believe that Mike Eruzione qualifies for sainthood. I think he was a terrific athlete and so were his teammates in 1980 and so is Lindsey Vonn today. Turning them all into Mother Teresas is where we went wrong with Tiger Woods. Of course, that didn’t stop Matt Lauer from giving Vonn a big hug, announcing “We are so proud of you’’ and presenting her with flowers. This guy works for an NBC news show? Veteran NBC anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley are doing quad loops in their graves. Tom Brokaw might join them after he hears the sappy music they inserted into his piece about snowboarder Kevin Pearce.

It was enough to make Lloyd Webber sound like Mahler. It’s enough, if you want less treacle in Olympics coverage, to make you think twice about whom you root for.

Who would have thought that the most sophisticated message coming out of NBC’s coverage would be the Visa commercials with their simple slogan - “Go world.’’

Freelance writer Ed Siegel is former television and theater critic for the Globe.

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