For good and bad, PBS keeps surprising us.
We don’t expect it to be involved with New Year’s Eve, a holiday that includes confetti, inebriation and silly hats. Arbor Day is more its style.
And we do expect it to be consistent. But now comes a surprise: A music special Thursday (New Year’s Eve) is beautifully crafted … in many of the same ways that a recent PBS one was badly botched.
The new special (8 p.m. Thursday, rerunning at 9:30, checks local listings) has such potent talents as Josh Groban (shown here in a previous concert) and bears the lofty title, “United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America.” And somehow, it lives up to that billing.
Song after song is epic in intent and in execution. The surprise is that this has so much in common with a recent misfire, “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.”
Both specials had the same idea: The American Pop Orchestra (APO), with its young founder (Luke Frazier, 35) conducting, outside a grand building, backing top singers. But “Ella” was stagnant in its camerawork, its wordy-but-bland talk, even its music arrangements; “United” is the opposite.
The setting is the front porch of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Frazier conducts the APO (mostly masked and distanced); there seems to be an invisible chorus. And outfront are some of the great voices, from Groban and Brian Stokes Mitchell to Renee Fleming and Audra McDonald.
But it’s not limited to that site. The show cuts to the National Symphony in the Kennedy Center and to soloists in other locations – cellist Yo-Yo Ma … and bass Soloman Howard, singing “Shenandoah” overlooking the Shenandoah River … and Denyce Graves at a memorial site.
That’s the one thing that’s bothersome at first – a feel-good concert, performed at a former slavery plantation. But midway in the special, that’s viewed head-on. Anna Deveare Smith offers a well-written history of Washington’s slaves; at their memorial site, Graves sings a potent spiritual.
The night starts and ends with Patti LaBelle, packing others in between, including Morgan James, Juanes and high-octane instrumentals from violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
It focuses on songs with great power – “Impossible Dream,””Climb Every Mountain,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Make Them Hear You,” “How Can I Keep From Singing?” Mitchell and McDonald repeat “Wheels of a Dream” from their triumphant “Ragtime” – in which she won the third of her six Tonys.
These are steep talents, tackling awesome music. It’s kind of nice for PBS to surprise us.