How the NFL blocked out the music at Super Bowl

How the NFL blocked out the music at Super Bowl


norman lebrecht

February 04, 2014

Here’s a blow by blow from producer Rob Mathes:

The NFL would not credit The New Jersey Symphony anywhere in the program nor myself as arranger and orchestrator. It is their policy to not allow anyone to use the trademark. The Symphony and I are allowed to talk about it and promote our work ad infinitum because what we did is factual but no acknowledgment for the Symphony seemed silly to me. Who cares about the arranger/orchestrator? I’ll be fine but New Jersey’s own??? The Super Bowl’s home this year and that home’s orchestra?? Who would it have hurt to mention them?? Come on!!!

To give more credit where credit is due, David Lai, Renée’s wonderful manager, and Renée herself completely masterminded the idea of using the Symphony. James Roe, the magnificent Oboist, who is now CEO of the NJ Symphony, and Susan Stucker, the COO, made it happen amidst the Symphony’s crazy schedule. On Friday, January 24th, I took up the baton on the stage of NJPAC and we went to work right after they had a recording session for Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Talk about a juxtaposition!! Obviously having a Symphony on the 50 yard line in January would be impossible so Isaiah Abolin, world class engineer, recorded a number of run throughs and we picked the best one. That is what you heard tonight along with a group of Men and Woman from the Combined Military Choirs, Army, Navy and Marines. The reviews online have been magnificent but, as with anything that exposed, there have been a few naysayers. I dare say it is a tough job to do that song well and with the dignity and grace it needs yet not do it straight off the sheet music. I have heard so many stodgy arrangements of it and others that gild the lily in the extreme. There are some classic and beautiful ones though. If forced to choose I’d take stodgy over histrionic. I often love the solemn and stirring performances done by Baritone singers, sometimes from the Military. That is almost the default best option as opposed to an American Idol free-for-all on such a rich hymn.

renee fleming super bowl

For those interested it is written as a waltz. In other words it is in 3. “Oh oh say can you see by the 1-2-3-1-2-3”. It is ever so occasionally expanded to be in 4, though rarely. Renée wanted the beginning to really suggest an openness and purity and she wanted to float above it. Putting the first two stanzas in 4/4 time gave her that room she wanted. I went to the traditional 3/4 time after “Rocket’s Red Glare”—gave “proof through the night” etc etc. Into 3 we went for a traditional barn storming close. What an absolute trip to hear it in the midst of all that madness. Giant Bud Light cans and bombs and women on horses and rockets. You name it. Renée gave it her all and just hit it out of the park I think.


  • The NJSO is a fine orchestra and deserved to be credited for their performance–and to play on the field and be comped. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers should have plugged in. And the Broncos should have concentrated on their game film and not lost their heads. But whaddyagonnado.

  • Ken Weiss says:

    Kudos to you all!! It was magnificent despite the pettiness of the NFL; another reason professional sports has become a huge turn-off

  • sdReader says:

    NJSO – 1

    NFL – 0

  • nlhartmann says:

    Superb performance by all. Best part of the game!

  • Time to remove the TAX EXEMPT status of the NFL. They are as “not for profit” as the teathuglicons are for Obamacare.

  • Leonard Slatkin says:

    Rob Mathes is one of the best arrangers in the business. Not only that, he has the classical chops to back it up. His chamber orchestra and chorus version, along with Gil Kaplan, of Mahler 2 will be in the stores in a couple days. He made a fantastic “Star Spangled Anthem” fantasy for me and the National Symphony some years ago. I might add that Kurt Weill, among others, has set the song in 4/4 time.

    • yay! and why does no-one in Israel play his Hatikvah?

    • It’s interesting to see Leonard Slatkin’s comment here in the context of an arrangement of the national anthem used in a very popular context. His parents, Felix and Eleanor, were the founders and violinists for the Hollywood String Quartet. This was not only one of the world’s great quartets, they also recorded some marvelous albums in a popular vein. My favorite is an album with Frank Sinatra entitled “Close To You” performing a group of wonderful arrangements by Nelson Riddle. If you possibly can, you should get a copy.

      This is all meaningful to me, because conductors like Leonard Sltakin bring classical music close to its American roots. I note that Renee Fleming’s Super Bowl performance had over 600,000 hits within 36 hours. There’s no reason classical music can’t be seen as something deeply American and widely popular in America.

  • Martin says:

    The arrangment was horrible. I wouldn’t brag too much about having arranged this, if I was Rob Mathes.

    • Brian says:

      Curious as to your qualifications to make this comment, Martin. As a professor of music, I rather liked the arrangement except for the unfortunate key in the opening stanza, but it is known to every American who has sung it — professional or amateur — that it is unsingable: too low at the beginning and too high at the end. Mr. Mathes and Ms. Fleming (and, yes, the orchestra) are to be congratulated for a fine performance, including the arrangement. It was a breath of fresh air from the pop divas of the past.

      • Judy says:

        The Star Spangled Banner is NOT unsingable with a range of an octave and ahalf and in the appropriate key. Unfortunately, the music program in public schools has not trained our youngsters to be able to sing more than five notes or to read basic tunes. Even chorus and church choir arrangements for young people have been “dumbed down”. I am a low alto and can sing it in the standard key of Ab. My father, without musical training other than a pubilc school education in 1900-1915 could sing it in his wonderful baritone even though he had lost most of his hearing to scarlet fever as a child. My high school classmates (class of 64) could for the most part all sing it in the standard key of those days (Bb). Nothing wrong with the tune, just the musical “dumbing down” of instruction for amateur singers. Given the response to Ms Fleming’s performance, I would say that there is a real hunger for REAL music education (popular and classical) in our public schools.

    • Rob Mathes says:

      Sorry about that Martin. It wasn’t for lack of trying. It’s an unforgiving song but a beautiful classic. We’ll try to do better next time. It is nice and educational to read all these comments, even the negative ones. Great to hear from Leonard S, who has been one of our great torch bearers in America for contemporary music. Thanks, Rob M

  • Jane Shelly says:

    I too was shocked when the NJSO was not even mentioned on the air — really REALLY bad form on the part of the NFL!

  • Tony says:

    Great job NJSO.

  • Not having been there for the session, the mix sounded bland and nondescript. I hope they do a better job on Alpine Symphony and that there will be a full personnel album credit.

  • thomas p says:

    …and the link?

  • Janey says:

    Congratulations, Mr. Mathes, for doing yeoman’s work on an incredibly difficult piece! The Symphony, the Chorus and Renee sounded wonderful together. It was great, and I am so happy to read all of the glowing reviews online (putting aside the uptight, negative Nellies her and there). It is wonderful to see our musicians represented so well.

  • Hal Keshner. says:

    Best rendition I’ve ever heard.

  • Jerry Lee says:

    The music was awesome. And Ms. Fleming, fantastic as always.

  • It was the best rendition I have ever heard. And the work behind the scenes was appreciated by those of us who understand and love good music and arranging. It is disheartening to go to that much work and not even get a mention, but the work was definitely worth it, and reflected in the excellence, honor and reverence it brought to our nation.

  • ed covi says:

    I didn’t see the half time show, I always try to avoid it. The NFL barely mentioned Rutherford N.J. So I wouldn’t be too shocked.

  • Melanie Rizzuto says:

    It was simply beautiful! So sorry for the classless network people who failed to mention anything about the music. Sad, but with Sports programs it’s about the game, not much else except for the commercials and money .It’s another example of the screwed up mind set manifesting in what is happening in school budgets across the country. Cutting programs for the Arts and music, which is proven to enrich the minds and creativity of the young mind, while improving learning abilities. Instead they double the sports funding , which does not improve their learning abilities and they see sports as a way to get ahead in the world. It won’t be much help if they can’t read or learn to see outside the box, or open their eyes and ears to see and hear the world around them. But they can catch a football and only a very small percentage will make it to the college or professional levels. Then they see themselves as failures, or let dowm the parents who push them in the wrong direction. They should be focusing on their ability to support themselves and their future families which promotes pride and improves their self esteem and gives them the courage to aim higher and better the world that they live in. We are otherwise teaching them to be selfish and greedy and going for nearly impossible quick success in life. Very few children have that miracle athletic ability to follow the quick success route. I have seen first hand how children’s hopes and dreams get crushed, at so young an age they feel life is over before it even has a chance to start,. This is horrible. Our children are the future and it’s our responsibility to prepare them for what ever future they face. Without ART AND MUSIC as part of their basic foundation of learning we are setting them up to fail. This Nation used to be the leaders in education, now we are falling behind in almost every subject taught. Is this the promise of our Country to the future generations ???

  • Ferry Driver says:

    Dear conductor: Your story is boring. Not many listening cared what your time signature was. This was the Super Bowl, not orchestra 101.

  • Joan Toone says:

    I so enjoyed Rene Fleming’s rendition of our National Anthem. I must listen again as I could tell something was different, but didn’t catch the change of time signatures- it was seamless and brought forth the boldness and force of the end of the song, Her rendition was perfection, the use of the orchestra inspired, and the under current of the chorus rounded out and lent a richness to the whole not often heard on a playing field. This is the model future Super Bowls should aspire to.


  • Teryle Watson says:

    It was a fabulous arrangement played beautifully by the New Jersey Symphony. Renee was magical….perfect mix of musicality, passion and dignity.It is pathetic that the orchestra, maestro and arranger were not given proper recognition.

  • Barbara Dever says:

    I am from New Jersey and I am also an opera singer who has had an international career. New Jersey seems to always get played down despite the fact that we have riches in the arts, our New Jersey Symphony being one of the finest of those riches! It is embarrassing to me that I had to ‘dig’ for information about the beautiful orchestra playing for Ms Fleming! Stand proud New Jersey! And it goes without saying that the arrangement by Mr Mathes was outstanding.

  • It was an artful arrangement and moving performance. But humans are predominantly visual processors, so musicians are chopped liver to most people unless they dress up and jump around on stage. For whatever it is worth, I was listening, I knew the notes did not jump onto the page by themselves, and I was deeply impressed by the remarkable quality of the arrangement – which was, by the way, much more impressive than the large brutish fellows bumping into each other on the field.

  • K.A. Reese says:

    There were also vocalists from the Air Force in the military chorus. I didn’t see anyone representing the Coast Guard, but they should have been there as well.

    I loved Fleming’s rendition of the Anthem. It is a shame that there was so little recognition for the NJ Sympony. They did mention it in passing, but they deserved to be recognized a great deal more.

    • Rob Mathes says:

      Forgive my excluding the Air Force singers. I was never given a breakdown of exactly who was in the choir. I just know it was a group of singers from the Armed Forces. My mistake. They were wonderful and when I showed up to work with them, everything was already seamless. Kind and dedicated folks. Regarding one of the comments above about my comments being boring, again forgive me. Norman posted my comments from a Facebook post I did for friends who often enjoy the little details. I have been reading Norman for years and it was so lovely to be included in one of these. I will cease my commenting but wanted to answer a few of these. Clearly this is a community of learned and engaged people. Some of the comments are great and I predictably am touched by the nice ones. Signing off for now. R

      • Janey says:

        Mr. Mathes,

        Do not be bothered by the single trollish comment about boredom. I (and I suspect, we) loved the details. In addition, I sincerely hope you will comment here in the future. Your “voice” could add much to the discussion.

  • Mr. Lewis says:

    Don’t forget Air Force. Ironically, you forgot to recognize some if the musicians as well.

  • Judy says:

    I loved both performances: By Ms Fleming and also by Queen Latifa of America the Beautiful with the Girls choir from New Jersey(?) I believe Ms Fleming commented enthusiastically on Queen Latifa’s performance. Two very different voices, two beautiful performances.

  • Matthew B. Tepper says:

    Dear Mr. Mathes, it is with an enormous amount of restraint that I would like to say that, for me, twisting our national anthem into 4/4 is not a whole lot better than tossing in gospel-derived roulades (gospel music is beautiful, but those melismas don’t work everywhere) or adding in extraneous utterances of “way-hay” or “whoop-woo,” as pop acts seem to do. This may mark me as nuttier than a fruitcake, but I would like to see the triple-meter-ness of the anthem given the force of law. Save 4/4 for solemn slow marches!