ALBANY >> This weekend, a unique presentation called “Spirit of America” returns after a decade to the Times Union Center in Albany.
“Spirit of America” is part military drill and martial music exposition, part multimedia history lesson and, undeniably, part public-relations extravaganza and recruitment vehicle. Participant Sgt. First Class Christopher Hirt calls it, acronymically, a “PAO” — a “public affairs operation.”
Col. Thomas Palmatier is commander and conductor of the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” one of the units that participate in “Spirit of America” each year.
“‘Spirit of America’ is an example of a major, major outreach effort,” Palmatier said. “We give an opportunity for people get up-close to their Army and find out what it’s all about. It’s a multimedia look at American history and the Army’s role in it. It’s kind of immersive. I liken it to going to the opera.”
Hirt, a member of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, perhaps captures it better.
“This is all about how the Army is part of America’s story, its history. We represent the musical heritage that is part of the Army,” he said.
“Spirit of America” involves a half-dozen performing and ceremonial units, including the century-old Army Band led by Palmatier. The fife and drum unit, of which Hirt is a member, and Continental Color Guard both garbed for performance in Revolutionary War regalia. There also is the Army Drill Team and two units most closely associated in the public mind with their ceremonial duties at Arlington National Cemetery — Caisson Platoon and Command-in-Chief’s Guard.
Palmatier and Hirt are both natives of the Capital Region. The colonel, an Albany native who grew up in Ballston Spa and attended Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School before heading off to SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, has been in the Army for 37 years, signing on as a military musician straight out of grad school.
Make no mistake, members of these “special bands” are soldiers first, going through boot camp and remaining in reserve for full-on field duty if needed.
“I have deployed twice to Iraq,” Palmatier said, “and had some exciting experiences there, but most of my career has been in some capacity with Army bands, performing in 49 different countries and all 50 states.”
Hirt, a Schodack native and Columbia High and Hudson Valley Community College graduate with family still living in the area, has been a musician all of his life and throughout his Army career, which began in 1994. In high school, Hirt was involved with the Village Volunteers Corps in Delmar, and first encountered the Old Guard at a drum corps gathering in Carmel.
“When I heard the Army had this opportunity to keep up with my fife and drum corps experience, I was all over it. We represent a unique period of music in America’s martial music heritage,” Hirt said.
That, in large measure, speaks to the purpose of the “Spirit of America” spectacle: to ground the Army in American history and shine it up for the public.
The performance includes narrative over re-creations by soldiers in period uniform of live-fire action on-stage — “everything from the Revolution to the winning of the west to contemporary combat,” Palmatier said — alongside musical interludes and the whiz-factor stuff like the drill team performing its precision specialty.
The Army Band does a marching segment and provides the pit orchestra accompanying the rest of the show, with one of the colonel’s assistant conductors taking the baton. Lest anyone imagine an Army band is all Sousa music, military music units also boast “world-class vocalists, and a fantastic orchestra,” Palmatier said. “We’ve got singers who have sung at the Met.”
The grand finale assembles all of the participants on the arena deck, and versions of the show even offer elements of comedy.
All performances are free — as taxpayers, after all, you’ve already paid for it — although reservations are required.
If you go
WHAT: “Spirit of America”
WHERE: Times Union Center in Albany
WHEN: 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday
TICKETS: Free, but reservations are required. For ADA seating, call 487-2084; for groups of 20 or more tickets, call 487-2100; for other ticketing information, call 487-2088 or visit www.timesunioncenter-albany.com.