OGDEN — This weekend, on a tiny island in the duck pond at Weber State University, a battery of 16 cannons will be lined up and ready to play their small-but-important part in a concert tradition that dates all the way back to 1978.
Now in its 41st year, the free Lindquist Pops Concert will begin at 9 p.m. Sunday, July 14, on the Ada Lindquist Plaza at Weber State University. The New American Philharmonic, directed by Mark Emile, will present an hour-long concert of patriotic music, followed by what’s billed as one of the largest fireworks displays in Utah.
Arguably, the most anticipated part of the weekend’s concert will be the orchestra’s rendition of Tchakovsky’s “1812 Overture,” complete with live cannon fire. And to punctuate the finale of that famous piece of music, the Cannoneers of the Wasatch have again been enlisted to provide artillery support.
Cannoneers of the Wasatch, based in Salt Lake City, first experimented with cannon accompaniment to music back in 1974, according to Charles Freshman, current president of the organization. But it wasn’t until 1979 that they began hooking up with the Utah Symphony to give the “1812 Overture” a little more oomph.
Freshman, who lives in Salt Lake, took the reins of the Cannoneers group back in the mid-2000s.
“The original founding members, a little over 13 years ago, were getting fairly old,” he recalled. “They figured they needed to step out of the picture, and they asked me if I would take over the responsibilities.”
Those responsibilities include a half-dozen orchestral performances throughout Utah each year, primarily with the Utah Symphony or the New American Philharmonic.
There were only six original members of the Cannoneers, according to Freshman. However, the Tchaikovsky piece calls for 16 cannon shots.
“They tried the best they could with six cannons,” Freshman said. “But the problem is, the ‘1812 Overture’ needs 16 cannons. They were trying to keep up, but it just wasn’t practical — it’s not as safe to do rapid fire.”
That’s because between each firing the cannoneers would have to “wet swab” the cannon, cleaning it out, and then reload it again.
“If you rush those things, that’s asking for a dangerous accident,” Freshman said.
Currently, the Cannoneers of the Wasatch organization has about 10 or 12 members, according to Freshman. Some members of the group have only one cannon, others as many as five or six.
Although all of the cannons are unique, Freshman estimates 95% of them use 40-millimeter rifled barrels, repurposed from World War II surplus anti-aircraft guns.
And how are they able to get the cannons to fire at the exact moment in the performance?
“You’re using an electronic igniter — some people would call it an electric match,” Freshman said. “The cannons are hooked to a keyboard, with a light and button for each cannon.”
Carolyn Thompson, as well as Freshman’s wife, Claudia, are usually the ones who fire the cannons during the performance.
“These two people in the group have listened to the ‘1812 Overture’ over and over and over, until they have it memorized,” he said.
Organizers are expecting more than 20,000 people to attend Sunday’s free concert.
Food trucks will be on hand selling refreshments to the crowd, and while there will be limited on-campus parking, the roundabouts off Harrison Boulevard and Dixon Drive will be closed to traffic. Access to campus will be via Edvalson Street, Skyline Drive, and Birch and Taylor avenues, with additional parking at the Dee Events Center.
Audience members are welcome to bring blankets or chairs, but no spaces may be saved before 6 p.m. Saturday, July 13. Items placed before that will be removed. Tarps, stakes and tent pegs are not allowed and will also be removed. No fireworks or pets of any kind are allowed on campus.
Freshman says that for the cannoneers, the annual pops concert is a nice summer tradition. Sometimes they’ll have a picnic dinner or gathering before or after the event.
Although the cannoneers sometimes fire projectiles during target competitions at a rendezvous or other historical western gathering, at symphony performances they’re shooting blanks. Freshman says they use black powder in the cannons.
“And grass clippings,” he adds. “We have somebody who mows lawns in the Morgan area, and they bring the grass clippings.”
And everyone, Freshman says, loves the “1812 Overture” with live cannons.
Well, almost everyone.
“The only ones who don’t like it is the geese and ducks on the pond,” he admitted.
One might assume that after four decades of Cannoneers of the Wasatch accompanying the symphony at the Lindquist Pops Concert, the waterfowl would have learned their lesson and take flight once 16 cannons show up at the pond. Not so, Freshman says.
“They usually wait for that first shot,” he said. “And then they’re gone.”