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One gleeful night recaptures Americans' specialness

A stirring performance by the PSO and the midshipmen of the Naval Academy proves magical.

Those of us concerned that our country has gotten off track and that we have lost some of the specialness that used to define us as Americans got a rousing jolt of reassurance this past weekend from the U.S. Naval Academy Men's Glee Club.

The Glee Club was here for a first-ever appearance with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. For Naval Academy graduates like myself, this was a rare moment. Simply put, it was a marriage made in heaven.

Seventy-five strong, the Glee Club didn't as much give a concert as burst onto the Merrill stage with a power and enthusiasm that left most of us dazzled.

The collaboration with the PSO was a fine blend of classical choral music, nautical themes from Broadway and Gilbert and Sullivan, and songs in the best of Navy and military tradition.

All of this from a group of midshipmen who are not music majors, as PSO Music Director Robert Moody pointed out. There are no music majors at Navy, simply future naval officers who love to sing and who have been impeccably prepared by the academy's Glee Club director, Aaron Smith.

The first half of the program featured a mix of popular numbers like "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from "South Pacific" and a trio of songs from the classical repertoires of Wagner and Gounod -- ending with Gounod's rousing "Soldiers Chorus" from "Faust."

It was impressive stuff from a first-class men's chorus and a first-class orchestra, both in top form. The midshipmen had clearly formed a strong bond with the PSO and its music director.

But all this was prelude to what came in the second half of the concert. This part of the concert was a tribute to those who serve and have served in the armed forces.

It opened to the stirring melodies of Richard Rodgers' "Victory at Sea" -- bringing back memories to many of us who followed that 1950s TV series of the World War II in the Pacific.

We were sitting next to retired Adm. Greg Johnson, a naval aviator, for whom "Victory at Sea" recalled his days in an aircraft carrier "ready room" in the Tonkin Gulf where he and his fellow pilots watched the series while waiting for their next mission.

Maestro Moody dedicated "Victory at Sea" to World War II veterans in the audience and asked all of them to stand. There must have been close to a dozen of those proud men who stood tall -- all well into their 80s. They were led by a particularly tall naval aviator from the Pacific Theater, former President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Moody acknowledged the president, and noted that he had been the youngest naval aviator to serve in the war. President Bush and his wife, Barbara, had contacted the PSO earlier in the week to inquire if tickets were still available. Some were found. The Bushes insisted on no ceremony.

They did go backstage before the concert to meet the midshipmen -- and to get a pre-concert version of "Anchors Aweigh."

Next in the concert was a rousing medley of songs saluting each of the branches of the armed forces, with all of us who had served standing for our respective branch's song.

It seemed to me that "Anchors Aweigh" got the most "standees," but I confess to being biased.

The Glee Club closed with the beautiful, haunting Navy hymn, "Eternal Father Strong to Save," and an incredibly powerful "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that brought the audience to its feet for an outpouring of joy and foot-stomping enthusiasm such as is seldom seen at the Merrill.

By the time we had joined the midshipmen in their encore -- what else but "America the Beautiful" -- the spirit of '76 was all but universal. A longtime usher told me that it was the most moving and emotional concert he had witnessed in his 25 years as a volunteer.

For a few special moments, all of us had a glimpse of the power of what is right about America.

We are going through a period in our history that has caused much questioning about whether this country has lost some of its magic. The midshipmen of the Naval Academy Men's Glee Club and the PSO rekindled some of that magic last weekend for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of it.

Many thanks to club director Aaron Smith, those 75 special midshipmen, Robert Moody and our own wonderful Portland Symphony for a weekend of music we will not soon forget.