What started as a cloudy Monday morning for doctors and veterans at the VA Hospital in Bay Ridge was brightened in the afternoon by music, sung by none other than international soprano star Susanna Phillips and played by the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center.
At 11:30 a.m., the spacious room with wide windows at the Veterans Affairs NY Harbor Healthcare System Facility, 800 Poly Place, filled up with audience members, with around 60 veterans seated and over 40 people standing in hopes of catching a glimpse of the 70-minute performance, played by 42 musicians.
Paul Morales, who served in Korea, dubbed the experience inspiring, and seemed unable to contain his excitement when he said “The singer made the hairs stand up on my arm.”
For many in the audience, the experience was their first seeing the Metropolitan Opera, but definitely not for a certain Air Force veteran stranded in a blizzard on Mt. Rainier with only day packs for the overnight trip and the comfort of a Met Opera radio broadcast.
It was that story that inspired principal timpanist Jason Haaheim to spearhead a concert in 2014 for the veterans, an effort which is now making a very successful return.
“It’s more about connections back through those served,” said Haaheim, who was “happy to be able to do it” and looking forward to opening the concert after the national anthem with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
From strings to woodwind, the sound of those who served traces as far back as clarinetist Jim Ognibene who performed with the President’s Own Marine Band and the father of violinist and organizer Vincent Lionti. Trombonist David Langlitz, crucial to piecing together the concert in 2014, said his dad is a World War II veteran who fought in General Patton’s army in the Intelligence Corps. As for Phillips, the singer’s family history involves a grandfather who served in the Marines.
“When I grew up, I heard stories from my dad about being in the war, and I always had a lot of feeling and sympathy for the vets,” said Langlitz, “By bringing music to the VA, we are able to bring the power and beauty of live performance to the people who served our country and for whose sacrifices we are so grateful.”
That said, no attendee showed more gratitude than the veterans attending. Hands flew to hearts for the national anthem and voices warbled in harmony to “America the Beautiful.”
Collectively, the medley put together by the musicians of the marches brought many of the veterans to their feet. Unlike some pieces that brought the veterans to tears, it was after Verdi’s “Overture to Forza” that one veteran smacked his cap to his knee and to the unexpected chagrin of the audience screamed, “Hot damn!”
At one point, Phillips spontaneously dedicated a song to one of the veterans after approaching a man in a wheelchair sitting in the front row. With her eyebrows raised and a hand over her heart, she serenaded the elderly man until he took off his hat in response. After the final song, the man was first in line for a photo and convinced Phillips to sign the program.
Also at the concert was Borough President Eric Adams, who formerly served as the chair of veteran affairs in the State Senate. His regard for the musicians attending was only matched by his appreciation for the former troops, and his short speech included a grateful message to those who allow citizens to “sit under the tree of freedom you [the veterans] have watered with your blood.”
The ensemble also included conductor Marco Armiliato and featured a repertoire rooted in Italian, Russian and French music. That dedication is what continues making the MET Orchestra Musicians Community Performance Series a great success.