When Classical Stars Rally Political Conventions

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Saxophone soloist Branford Marsalis kicked off Wednesday's events at the Democratic National Convention with a soulful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But for sheer crowd-pleasing, clap-along nostalgia, a classic rock anthem was the musical high point: Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," which accompanied Bill Clinton's entrance into the conventional hall.

Convention organizers have long turned to pop, country or classic-rock acts when seeking to burnish their candidate's image and connect with every target demographic. But every so often, classical musicians have gotten the gig.

One of the earliest reported examples came in 1960, when the soprano Alma Pedroza (1918-1999) sang the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that selected John F. Kennedy as presidential nominee. The coloratura often sang with the Mexico City Opera Company, but in LA, she was known as the city's unofficial anthem singer, often performing at Dodger Stadium.

Other opera singers followed. Baritone Sherrill Milnes sang at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta that nominated Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Marilyn Horne, a lifelong Democrat, sang the national anthem on the opening night of the 1992 convention that picked Bill Clinton as the nominee (the second night’s anthem singer was Aretha Franklin). Four years later, at the DNC in Chicago, soprano Jessye Norman, a guest of the New York delegation, gave a soaring rendition of "America the Beautiful." The Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine performed the national anthem that year.

There is the question of party taste. PBS host Gwen Ifill recently commented that Republicans traditionally select country and classical music for the convention soundtrack. While this may be partly true, the GOP has historically attracted fewer classical stars. But there are exceptions. Luciano Pavarotti joined the Dallas Opera for a lavish arena concert on the eve of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas (he treated delegates to a reported nine encores).

In 2004, Daniel Rodriguez, the New York City police officer and tenor who became known for singing at public services after 9/11, performed the national anthem at the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden.

This year, classical musicians are relatively scarce (Marsalis has recorded two albums of classical pieces but is known foremost for his jazz repertoire). One exception is Philip Alongi Jr., a 33-year-old tenor from New Jersey who sang the national anthem last month to kick off the Republican National Convention. He previously sang at the Republican convention four years ago in Minneapolis and at a Democratic presidential debate. As it happens, Alongi’s father is the convention’s executive producer.

Asked by a reporter in 2008 whether he had been planning to vote for John McCain, Alongi gave a diplomatic answer: "The Republican Party was nice enough to bring me here. I wouldn't want to throw any mud in their face." Watch his 2012 performance below: