Inaugural music not so simple a gift

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For whatever reason, I feel compelled to finish this languishing draft in a form different than it began, wanting to publicly consolidate some thoughts on last week’s inauguration while not waxing as far as I originally tried about the future of our nation and a renewed hope in our place in the world. To be sure, I am as excited as I was last week about these things, and I am happy to see that after less 10 days in office, Obama has not only repealed some of the shameful legacies of our last president, but clearly has set an unapologetically new tone from the West Wing to the West Bank.

For the record, I fully expect to be disappointed in some things I really feel strongly about not moving forward the way I thought or that he originally promised. Part of being a good leader is adapting to new situations and information; being a better leader is conveying why things have changed for those who were expecting otherwise. We’ve had enough of this “stay the course” because “I’m the decider” bullshit for a lifetime.  I think everyone on both sides of the aisle should be in a position of compromise on domestic affairs in this time of financial crisis.

Having gotten “current events” out of the way, I want to return and remain on the inauguration itself. I saw it partially live, but since I was caring for my daughter that morning, I was unable to see Obama’s swearing in, speech, and after coverage until later from the DVR. Fortunately, one item I did see live just before having to switch off was when Sen. Feinstein announced the names of Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriella Montero, and Anthony McGill to play the commissioned inaugural work by John Williams, “Air and Simple Gifts.”  I about fell out of my chair when I heard Perlman and Ma’s names. Mind you, we had just heard Aretha Franklin in the broadcast which was already over the top awesome (not to mention that gem-studded bow hat!), but to have Perlman and Ma on the same stage LIVE as a surprise (I hadn’t done any prior scouting or reading of events) was incredible.  Wind instruments aren’t my thing, so I didn’t know the clarinetist, but Gabriella Montero is a phenomenal pianist and gifted collaborator on several cross-over projects; she’s also certainly Venezuela’s most popular export to the classical music world along with Gustavo Dudamel.

The point is, before the music even began the tremendous surge of pride at how serious music and the arts had been given here was overwhelming.  This was no “filler” cocktail quartet music–this was the unquestionable musical “main event.  It also instantly occurred to me that 3 of the 4 musicians were not originally of this country (Perlman and Ma however are both naturalized citizens), and the fourth was African-American. What incredible symbolism of unification and diversity in just the musicians themselves!

Then the music started.  Once they started playing, the realization hit me like a brick across the head: “OH. MY. GOD. It’s 20-something degrees and Perlman and Ma have their multi-million dollar Stradivarius instruments warping in the cold?!”  Just as my heart recoved from throwing a PVC it then hit me: “Wait…the piano!!!!  How is it being kept in tune?!”  You have to understand–it takes HOURS to tune a piano; there are 88 keys but over 200 strings/pegs to adjust since most keys have more than one string (most have 3)–all of which need to be in unison among themselves and in proper relative pitch with every other key.  I think, “So instrument valuation aside, adjusting the four strings of a cello or violin, or pushing in/pulling out the segments of a clarinet would be comparatively simple, yes, but….”

And suddenly I hear that familiar tune, used so gloriously by Aaron Copland in “Appalachian Spring” that’s become part of the very fabric of  American musical existence.  And then it continued. And continued.  “Aw hell no….” I thought to myself, realizing that this was the focal point for Williams’ work.  I was so disappointed, feeling the event was cheated, wondering how Williams could have not come up with something more personal, more evocative of this special moment in history.

The whole point of a commission is to write something new, not re-work a tune that elementary school children could recognize that was already popularized and made iconic by yet another American composer.  GOOD LORD!

I even tweeted the fact that I thought the composition was less-than-desirable in real-time, so this is not a revisionist point of view, but I did look up what people thought afterwards and I’m comforted to know I’m not alone. In the process, I also discovered what probably everyone now knows about the “live” performance and that what we heard on TV and what was broadcast locally over the speakers was in fact a pre-recorded performance from the previous day for the very technical reasons I was thinking as I was watching.  I didn’t feel bad when I found out, because obviously I know why and also that they were in fact playing in real-time; the honor to the event was still maintained if you could hear any of them acoustically. There were just too many damning technical factors to consider outside the players’ control to do the event justice for everyone while still have them on stage in that weather which Yo-Yo Ma himself described as “wicked cold.”

Regardless though, I’m happy to see that classical music got a prominent moment to shine, even though it was via Williams channeling Aaron Copland cheered on by Wolf Blitzer’s voiceover in the middle of the performance–but I won’t go there lest I get upset all over again… :P

  • By Fat Doctor, January 31, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    I too blogged that I wasn’t sure how they tuned their instruments for the cold and days later read it was prerecorded. Despite that, I, like you, was bowled over that the inaugural committee thought classical music was important enough to make a center point. Watching Obama turn around in his chair to see the musicians gave me goosebumps.

  • By Derren Howlander, February 2, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    Here is how the music actually sounded live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ka-sHA74N40&feature=channel_page

  • By dragonfly, February 4, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    Aretha’s hat was AWESOME. Wish I could pull it off.

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