The Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery has helped one family get to know itself better.
Bass baritone David Pittsinger is a veteran of both opera and musicals. In fact, he once sang at both the Metropolitan Opera and on Broadway the same day, going from the singing Emile de Becque at a matinee of "South Pacific" to the Ghost of Hamlet's Father in the Met's high-definition broadcasts of "Hamlet."
This weekend at Heinz Hall, he will be half of another novel two-parter when he and his teenage son join the Pittsburgh Symphony to premiere an intriguing work that may be the first commissioned for a father-and-son duo. Mr. Pittsinger and his son Richard, a boy soprano, will sing "Arlington Sons," written by composer Scott Eyerly. The spirit of a father, or rather a father's spirit, takes center stage here: It honors Mr. Pittsinger's own father, Richard Mayne Pittsinger. He was a U.S. Army veteran who served as a distinguished guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery.
"During my appearances at the Kennedy Center in 'South Pacific' I took my twins to Arlington and explained to them that their grandfather served there," he says of Richard and his daughter Maria. "It was a way of introducing them to him and the kind of man he was." But he began to consider the overtones of the day, that the retelling of his experience with his father also paid tribute to all who serve. "Being musicians, what better way to share this experience than commissioning a piece of music serving as a reverent remembrance?"
Luckily Mr. Pittsinger had a composer within arm's length, at least of his son's arm. "Scott is a wonderfully sensitive composer," he said. "He knows my voice from my work at the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway, and the fact that he is Richard's music theory teacher at St. Thomas Choir School [in New York City], he is intimately acquainted with Richard's unique vocal and musical abilities [as a boy soprano]. Scott's writing is relevant, reverent, accessible and personal."
While Mr. Everly was inspired by the Pittsinger's story, he was also enthralled by the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns. "This honor is one of the most coveted, and difficult to obtain, in the entire military," he says. "It is not a long ceremony, but there are intricate parts."
Many of the parts of the ritual are calculated and symbolic, such as the reference to the 21-gun salute. "The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process," the cemetery's website explains.
The changing of the guards is the most elaborate part of the ceremony. The sentinels, as they are referred to, are replaced every hour in fall and winter and every half-hour in spring and summer.
Mr. Everly's 12-minute piece depicts a father and son visiting Arlington Cemetery to watch the changing of the guard. It has both arias and spoken dialogue. "I couldn't think of a way to combine a bass-baritone and a soprano without thinking of that as a concert scene," he says. "I wanted it to be believable." He incorporated some humor into the work, with the young son not quite understanding the gravitas of the ceremony. "Comic relief can make music more accessible," he adds.
Besides Mr. Pittsinger's appropriate name for a baritone performing here, he was the Pittsburgh Opera's Artist of the Year for portraying the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod's "Faust," the title role in Boito's "Mefistofele" both in the 1990s. But "Arlington Sons" will premiere here because "Pittsburgh took the initiative" in programing it.
The time that the two Pittsingers have to perform it together is limited. It essentially ends when Richard's voice breaks. "Maybe when his voice changes he can sing the baritone part and his son can sing boy soprano," he says.
Leonard Slatkin will conduct the concert that includes William Schuman's Symphony No. 3 and star pianist Olga Kern soloing in Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3.