Classic(al) patriotism: Philharmonic kicks off Memorial Day weekend with SALUTE! to veterans

On a night normally reserved for timeworn tradition, the new and novel stepped centerstage at the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s annual SALUTE! free concert Friday.

Instead of veteran and now-retired David Bowden leading the ensemble, there was guest conductor Roger Kalia, known to music followers here mostly as the former music director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Just before Kalia raised his baton at a sun-splashed Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans along Second Street came another new twist.

Philharmonic board president Christopher Raskob introduced Isaac Selya, the Philharmonic’s just-announced music director.

“It is an enormous honor to have this position,” Selya said to the crowd. “And I am very much looking forward to sharing some music with you all later this fall.

“But tonight, I’m very much looking forward to getting to relax, and hearing some beautiful music from the orchestra and watch while Roger Kalia does all the hard work.”

Columbus resident Jim Lucas was among the throng who admittedly comes for more than a song at an event that has become an overarching show of community unity. Lucas’ family is rich with military devotion, including three brothers who served in Vietnam and an uncle who died in Korea, and another who died in France.

“So I try to come here almost every year,” he said. “We have a long history.”

Given his heritage, his favorite part of the gathering is a simple and powerful one: the Armed Forces Salute, wherein veterans from every branch are asked to stand awash in a chorus of applause and appreciation.

Lucas also fell in love with tenor vocalist Jonathan Elmore’s powerful vocals on even an abbreviated, pre-concert warmup of the emotional “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables.”

“What an awesome voice,” Lucas said.

Most years, organizers have estimated the SALUTE! crowd to be 5,000 to 6,000 people — babies, Boomers, senior citizens, you name it. And as always Friday, there were enough people sporting stars and stripes on T-shirts, hats, sunglasses, headbands, and more to launch a Fourth of July parade.

The scene highlighted a welcome outdoor return for the event that last year was moved indoors to Judson Erne Auditorium after heavy rains. The concert, the brainchild of now-late Republic Associate Editor Harry McCawley, long a supporter of veterans causes, began in 2001.

Since then, it has become part musical performance, part somber salute to military both living and dead, and part patriotic picnic with many attendees enjoying homemade food-and-drink spreads, not to mention hot-off-the-smokey-grill selections from local band boosters.

As part of Friday’s program, local broadcaster John Foster read the words of Abraham Lincoln as the orchestra presented Aaron Copland’s stirring “Lincoln Portrait.” The piece won applause from many even in the bustle of pre-concert preparation.

Near the end of Lincoln’s thoughts in the work echoed these fitting words: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”