Coping with crisisAny Fourth of July party risks irony, particularly after a year marked by social injustice, an attempted coup d’état, and a pandemic. Thus, I must admit that while standing amongst a crowd with my hand over my heart as the Charlotte Symphony opened its Celebrate America concert with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” I was skeptical. However, I was happily surprised: In joy as well as sorrow, the CSO provoked questions about the American identity and the past two years while maintaining a celebration of life and community through music.

The Charlotte Knight’s Truist Field was packed. The orchestra, led by a black and gold Knights jersey-wearing Christopher James Lees, was set up in the middle of the field and amplified by speakers. Following the national anthem was a new “Fanfare for Democracy,” by James Stephenson, which was commissioned for President Biden’s inauguration and has since been commissioned by an orchestra from each state. The CSO is proud to be North Carolina’s representative.

During the first several pieces, which included Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and Morton Gould‘s “American Salute,” it was clear that musicians, conductor, and sound technicians were still adjusting their musical balance. Because of this, there were some moments of imbalance, particularly between high and low voices. The same could be said for rhythmic clarity, which in some instances could become muddled, again, most likely because the mix of stadium environment and amplifiers can be disorienting.

However, with the aid of percussionist Rick Dior, the orchestra was able to get back on track in Leroy Anderson’s “Fiddle Faddle,” the quick and jubilant piece for strings. This arrangement added a drum set part for Dior, including a solo which he played with great spirit and precision. Dior continued on drum set for a medley of Duke Ellington and one from A Chorus Line, which Lees said represented two of America’s greatest contributions to the musical world – jazz and Broadway (jazz, Lees said, being the greatest). The crowd was obviously pleased with these two medleys, as they clapped and even sang along.

For the most part, the concert was truly celebratory: all upbeat, joyous, and well-known selections provoked cheers from an audience who, if like me, had not been to a large communal gathering such as this in over a year. As is tradition, the orchestra concluded with three from John Phillip Sousa, including, of course, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which featured lively brass and piccolo sections. Finally, post-concert, red, white, and blue fireworks lit up the Charlotte skyline.

Yet, between expressions of glee, one piece stood alone: “With Malice Toward None,” by John Williams from the movie Lincoln, began with a single cello. Wistful, questioning, and bittersweet, the cello called to the strings for answers. With vibrato, they sounded on the verge of tears. While the singular cello line continues and is developed upon, the ensemble comes together to carry it through with lush swells and crescendos, ending with a soft, though perhaps triumphant, exhalation.

“With Malice Toward None” comes from Lincoln’s second inaugural address from 1865. In the address, Lincoln condemns slavery and offers that, though terrific, the war was the will of God to right the offence of slavery. “Woe to that man by whom offence cometh!” Lincoln quotes. Does this make for a just God? Maybe, Lincoln proposes. “If God wills that [the war] continue …until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…so it still must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

To apply this to all of the past two years’ catastrophe would be unfair. Though much of our social unrest and political violence can be traced to America’s original sin, a pandemic is not man-made. To say the lives lost this year from anything – be it the pandemic, police brutality, or gun violence – were warranted acts of God would just sound cruel. Similar to Lincoln, we find ourselves in a state of devastation, with some traceable causes but with a result more “astounding” than could have ever been predicted. Like the cello in “With Malice Toward None,” we are left asking, why?

And there is no answer. Nevertheless, to return to Lincoln, there is action to be taken. “With malice toward none, with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in. To bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” The strings gather to lift the cello and the ensemble plays his line together. In the end, they find some sort of closure.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but whereas I started the evening with skepticism, I ended with hope. It appeared the CSO’s “Celebrate America” was not just a long-overdue party. Rather, it was like an Irish wake: an opportunity to mourn as well as to celebrate, to question our identity as Americans and to recommit ourselves to an ideal that has yet to be realized.