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Sunday, July 04, 2004
In a festive mood for the 4th of July, I watched the Boston Pops on CBS and "A Capitol Fourth" with the National Symphony on PBS. I've watched July 4 concerts on TV ever since I was a kid, with Arthur Fielder and the Pops on PBS. This year, however, something was missing-- the best part of every July 4 pops concert, the 1812 Overture.

It is strange, of course, that the 1812 Overture, by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, would become a staple of celebrations of American independence day. The piece, which takes a very typical form for a solemn Russian Romantic overture, depicts a battle between the French and the Russians during Napoleon's march on Russia in the Winter of 1812. (Napoleon eventually was forced to retreat because of the weather and the Russians' battle strategy. This was considered a key event in Russia history, because it boosted Russia's confidence that it would never be dominated by European powers. The Russians (actually the Soviets) later used the winter to repel Hitler's forces as well.) The Overture utilizes portions of the French National Anthem and a classic Russian Hymn that honors the Tsar, to create a contrapuntal sound of the advance and retreat of armies. Of course, what makes the piece famous is the use of chimes, cannons, bells, and everything else Tchaikovsky can muster, with the instantly recognizable closing fanfare playing on top of it (and the Tsar's Hymn playing victoriously in the background).

Why, then, is this explictly nationalist Russian anthem such an American institution. One might guess it has something to do with the year 1812 (after all, America fought a war in 1812 as well), but it really doesn't. There are two basic stories. The first is that Tchaikovsky played the overture in 1891 when he opened Carnegie Hall, and it has played on July 4 since then. But while Tchaikovsky did open Carengie Hall, he didn't do it on July 4; the concert was in May. More likely is that Arthur Fielder, the longtime conductor of the Boston Pops, decided that the way to get attention for his concerts on the Esplanade of the Charles River on July 4 was to do the "1812" complete with the staging that is only possible outdoors, including the cannons, the bells, the fireworks, and the kitchen sink.

Whatever, it became a tradition, and the 1812 Overture is the centerpiece of every Boston Pops July 4 concert. Those concerts used to air on PBS with Fiedler, and later John Williams, conducting. They did a version of the "1812" that deleted a repeated section but still lasted a good 16 minutes or so. It was always a sight to see, with fireworks and cannons everywhere and 400,000 spectators going crazy. Later, A&E network picked up the Boston Pops July 4 concert, and A&E featured the 1812 as well. PBS substituted the Capitol July 4 concert for the Pops, and they also did the 1812, with Erich Kunzel conducting, and usually with a choir to augment the string section at the start of the piece.

In the last 2 years, however, everything has gone to hell. The Boston Pops have been picked up by CBS, but they only show an hour of the concert. For that reason, they can't spend 16 minutes on the Overture. Instead, we get a couple of celebrity singers-- this year it was David Lee Roth (how pathetic), followed by a Sousa march, a patriotic singalong, and a bunch of fireworks accompanied by taped music.

Meanwhile, on PBS this year, to fit in a tribute to Ray Charles and Clay Aiken singing "God Bless the U.S.A." (yecch), we got only 2 minutes of the 1812 Overture, which Kunzel started conducting just before the end. This is truly objectionable-- it is impossible to get excited for the finale of the piece without hearing Tchaikovsky's depiction of the battle that leads up to it. The result is, this great July 4 tradition was completely desecrated by television this year.

Of course, this sort of thing is par for the course for television, which always looks for things to cut and seeks the lowest common denominator-- who needs Tchaikovsky when you have David Lee Roth? But I have a slightly cynical take as well. Perhaps the TV folks have decided that if you are going to cut something out of the 4th, an epic piece about a Russian battle is the right thing to cut. I have noticed that in recent years, Fox has not shown the singing of the Canadian national anthem at the baseball All-Star Game (which is always sung), but has come back after commercial to show the "Star-Spangled Banner". (They also forego a block of commercials-- real money-- to show the singing of "God Bless America" during the 7th Inning Stretch.) Americans can be very crassly nationalistic (witness the renaming of french fries as "freedom fries", and the more general vilification of the French, after the UN votes leading up to the Iraq war), and perhaps no TV station ever went broke pandering to that nationalism. So here's an overture that glorifies the sacrifices of two countries, the French and the Russians, that conservatives bash on every day on talk radio. Gee, is it that much of a surprise that this is what gets deemphasized?

What bothers me more than anything about this is that the 1812 Overture is one of the few exposures to serious music that many Americans have. It may be mildly fun to sing along with Clay Aiken on July 4, or to watch fireworks explode to the music of Mariah Carey records, but the music of Tchaikovsky changes lives, touches souls, and connects us with a history, both musical and military, that most Americans know little about.

Indeed, while I bow to nobody in calling this the greatest country in the world (we get the core issue of individual liberty right in a way that no other society does), the fact is that in many parts of America, not only is nobody expected to know who Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky was or the fact that Russia and France fought in 1812, but those who do know these things are viewed with distrust, as snooty elitists. When TV plays to this ignorance, by imploring God to bless the U.S.A. while not finding 16 minutes to devote to a piece that will still be listened to, and enjoyed, long after Lee Greenwood is forgotten, it disgraces this country. Americans are a tremendously lucky people-- we have freedom, riches, and near-universal access to the canonical works of western culture. We should not spurn this gift in favor of mindless crap on July 4.


Games & PC Games News - Oct. 16, 2005

Is the PC game market? (Dallas Morning News)
The last few years have not been all fun and games for computer game fans, but that might be changing. As attention has shifted to sophisticated video game consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation 2, PC gamers have watched their preferred platform wither.

Xbox 360's New Media Play Finding Fans (eWeek)
Consumers were impressed by the expanded multimedia features of Microsoft's upcoming Xbox 360 at the Digital Life conference, while gamers were excited to begin using the devices to access other types of services.

NewTek Releases Fifth Free Feature Update for LightWave 3D (Digital WebCast)
NewTek, Inc., manufacturer of industry-leading 3D animation and video products, today announced the release of the fifth free update and the 64-bit port for Emmy award-winning LightWave 3D . Version 8.5 offers hardware support of OpenGL 2.0, the new Multishift tool with editable history, Photoshop -style texture blending modes, improved dynamics, and easier integration of third-party file formats.

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