This Friday, as Americans across the country celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and flags, local volunteers with Arts Express will mark a milestone of patriotic music productions: 30 years of “Let Freedom Sing.”
“It is very emotional. This concert is another way to connect people to love of our country. It just pulls at your heart strings with pride and humility to recognize what so many have done through so many wars to protect our freedoms,” said Joan Ashcraft, co-artistic director of Arts Express with her husband, David Ashcraft.
For the past three decades, the Ashcrafts have staged the annual musical gala that has expanded to feature the 100-member Arts Express Choir and Orchestra, the Big Band Express, special guest performers and a tribute to veterans and the family members of those who have served and are serving in branches of the military each year.
Held at the University of Arizona’s Centennial Hall, the 30th anniversary event will feature a wide-ranging musical tour through several decades and include a tribute to the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy.
A lineup of featured soloists include Arthur Migliazza, a Sabino High School graduate and member of the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame who has earned an international reputation as a blues and boogie-woogie pianist; “Let Freedom Sing” veteran Armen Dirtadian; vocalist Dennis Tamblyn; and other local favorites such as Delores Maddox, Stephanie Carlson, Erin Hagedon and Peter Ageh.
The concert will spotlight patriotic songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “I Believe in America,” along with show tunes from popular movies and Broadway musicals through the years such as “The Mission” and “The Secret Garden.”
The D-Day theme will be perpetuated by recognition of eight local World War II veterans, including Ralph Freund, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on Friday. Another special guest is Michael Viti of Freedom Has a Face: Mike’s Hiking for Heroes, who is walking 7,100 kilometers across America — one kilometer to honor each of the servicemen and servicewomen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The performance brings the entire community together, marrying music and history in a moving tribute to America, Ashcraft said.
“There is so much that can be learned in studying the arts in terms of the development of history: Think of Vietnam, with Bob Dylan and The Mamas and the Papas — and some of the protest songs — and then songs like ‘God Bless the USA,’ that are all about heritage and country and building a sense of cultural recognition for what we have as Americans,” Ashcraft said.
The nonprofit Arts Express seeks to build cultural recognition and make a better community by creating opportunities to experience the power of the arts not only through family events such as “Let Freedom Sing” and the Memorial Day “A Hero’s Salute,” but a variety of growing programs for people of all ages, according to executive director Karen Wiese.
“We have expanded by leaps and bounds, and it is wonderful being able to touch the lives of more and more and see the growth that has been happening. It is just tremendous,” she said.
To accommodate older youth, the group formed a new partnership with Broadway in Tucson to adjudicate local high school musicals and select 10 finalists eligible for a trip to San Diego for the Ben Vereen Awards three weeks ago.
Additionally, Arts Express offers programs for Southern Arizona children in grades two through 12: Behind the Scenes, Broadway and More is a partnership with Broadway in Tucson and UApresents that provides students with a workshop of “tricks of the trade” used in theater productions and includes student attendance at a series of matinee productions.
Arts America is a summer arts immersion program of the Fine Arts Youth Academy. It offers a variety of classroom instruction in visual arts, music, dance and musical theater for students in grades four through 10 who might not otherwise have the experience. The program culminates in student performances, art exhibits and music theater productions — including a recent performance of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” by middle school students — that are open to the public.
The Arts America “Big Project” for this summer included a life-sized cardboard replica of Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. The project, which focused on set design and history of the 1920s, will be on display at “Let Freedom Sing.”
Ashcraft said projects like the Spirit of St. Louis and “Let Freedom Sing” bring history to life and provide unique understanding of the past through art, and she is certain the 30th extravaganza will be memorable for those who attend.
“I think it will be a tremendous opportunity to celebrate our past and to continue the legacy that many of us hope we leave through these meaningful productions,” she said.