At 8:05 last night Senator Edward M. Kennedy was on the rostrum, addressing the Democratic National Convention and the nation. Less than three hours later, he was on a different podium, in Symphony Hall, conducting the Boston Pops in "The Stars and Stripes Forever" -- not his conducting debut, not even his debut with the Pops, but it was his first time conducting in Symphony Hall and his premiere outing with Sousa's signature march.
Outfitted onstage in a white jacket handed to him by Ben Affleck ("one of your constituents"), the senator led it like a pro, delighting the audience by crouching for the quiet parts and later going bananas to encourage the trombones; at the end, as Old Glory and cascades of balloons descended, he turned to face the crowd and flashed the famous grin. The occasion was a tribute to Kennedy's long career, and it brought out a stageful of celebrities, representing the arts, which Kennedy has so mightily supported. They included Glenn Close, who served as host; Bono; Yo-Yo Ma; Audra McDonald; Brian Stokes Mitchell; John Williams and the Boston Pops. Keith Lockhart wrote a note in the program book and was in the crowd, and many Pops members drove back from Tanglewood to participate. Collectively they represented classical music, Broadway, Hollywood, and rock, and all represented the senator's personal choice. Bono wasn't in Symphony Hall's Rolodex, but Kennedy's office found him.
Backed by in-the-groove arrangements by Pat Hollenbeck, Bono sang "Pride (In the Name of Love)" with special lyrics written for the occasion ("Three brothers paid with their lives") and his voice fearlessly attacked more high A's than many a tenor would care to calculate. He also duetted with Ma in "The Hands That Built America" -- both of them offering beautiful legato, and lots of soul.
Mitchell sang "The Impossible Dream" ("The senator makes dreams possible") and "The Best Is Yet To Come," and McDonald sang a novelty song, "10,432 Sheep" as well as "Somewhere" from "West Side Story," her soprano soaring with hope and belief. Ma whizzed lickety-split through the finale of Haydn's C-Major Cello Concerto, smiling at every flourish, and then offered a couple of Irish fiddler arrangements, playing games of "anything you can do, I can do better" with concertmaster Tamara Smirnova.
Susan Dangel and Dick Bartlet spent two months making a little film about Kennedy, a collage of baby pictures, fiery speeches, an interview, and a scene on a Cape Cod beach with his dogs. Williams and the orchestra synchronized this to two of his own compositions. Close, glittering in black, made an elegant and eloquent emcee and narrator for the film.
In it the senator was seen singing "Sweet Rosie O'Grady," so Williams summoned him to the stage; Kennedy left his seat at table G-101, where he was surrounded by a phalanx of junior Kennedys, and came to the stage to sing "Sweet Adeline" with the Overdrive Quartet, a barbershop group from New Hampshire. He gave his all, which prompted a standing ovation, one of 17, if you don't count the national anthem, heard in a spiffy new arrangement Williams recently made for the Rose Bowl.
Williams is also a wordsmith, and provided new lyrics for Cole Porter's "You're the Top" that were sung by the assembled cast, including Close, who has her own Broadway singing credentials. "You're the top /You're a Red Sox inning./You're the top/Like the Patriots winning." There was applause at Williams's deft rhyming of "Victoria" with "We could use lots more-ya." After the last of the standing O's, some headed off to an invitation-only party; the senator seemed amused to discover that his escape route took him down the freight elevator.