BOSTON — The ancient Olympic Games ended with a song by an eminent poet. The 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics begins with 100 musicians playing an opus by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, composer Philip Glass, and percussionist Zakir Hussain.
Also for the opening date of July 19, master film scorer John Williams has written the official Olympic theme, "Summon the Heroes." The song can be heard in advance among many CDs riding the Olympics tide.
Boston Pops Orchestra's Summon the Heroes (Sony) includes first recordings of the stentorian Olympic title track; of Williams's "Olympic Spirit" of 1988, with its engaging bolero flavor; and of Leonard Bernstein's "Olympic Hymn" from 1981, a richly layered piece, one of four on the disk adding the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Another choral offering, tribal in feeling, is from Carl Orff's long-ago, ahead-of-its-time "Carmina Burana."
Besides marvelous movie chestnuts from "Ben-Hur" and "Chariots of Fire," there's Shostakovich's Festive Overture, whose somber beginning seems apt for the controversial 1980 Moscow Olympics. Notable among the rest is "Javelin," as light and soaring as the name implies, by the acclaimed youngest composer here, Michael Torke. It was commissioned for this year's Cultural Olympiad to celebrate the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary.
On the Millar Brass Ensemble disc, World Anthems, Vol. 1 (Delos, conducted by Stephen Squires), arranger Donald Fraser, known as resident composer for Britain's Old Vic Theater Company, imaginatively treats the anthems of 48 countries as instrumental music rather than national declamations. There is a historical fillip, though, in hearing on the same CD France's "La Marseillaise" from 1795 and South Africa's native songs adopted as anthems two centuries later in 1994.
The "Star-Spangled Banner" gets a lively drum-tapping beat instead of oratorical solemnity. India's anthem by Rabindranath Tagore seems as rounded to the ear as Indian art is to the eye. A fine solo trumpet takes off from "Mexicans, when the trumpet is calling...." Discreet temple blocks, tom-toms, gongs, or oompahs give touches of local color to other anthems. Some (Norway, Denmark) have a Christmas-carol feeling amid all the fanfare. Austria's anthem may not be by native-son Mozart, as some suggest, but, as the only piece here in three-quarter time, it wears its Viennese heart on its sleeve.
Adding perspective is The Sound and the Spirit: A History of Music at the Olympic Games, a promotional CD by Eastman Kodak, an Olympic sponsor. It recalls that music itself used to be a competitive event (until 1948) and that Olympic audiences have heard Wagner (1896), Handel, Grieg, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss, as well as "Chariots of Fire."