Music Review: John Williams's 'Air and Simple Gifts' at the Obama Inauguration

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It was called "Air and Simple Gifts." It was billed as a new work, "composed and arranged" by John Williams. It was a chamber piece that filled the gap between the two oaths of office at yesterday's swearing-in ceremony. It was functional, representational music, and it actually did serve a function: It allowed everyone some downtime before the main event of the oath and the new president's speech. For although it was only four minutes long, a lot of people stopped paying attention and started talking to each other before the music was over.

Music, at such a ceremony, has a role much like the bunting and flags that adorned the west front of the Capitol yesterday: It provides a symbolic background and adds color. "Air and Simple Gifts" tried to carry so much symbolic weight that it almost collapsed under the burden. It wasn't just that its four high-powered classical soloists spanned a Benetton range of generational, ethnic and gender bases (Itzhak Perlman, 63, born in Israel; Yo-Yo Ma, 53, of Chinese descent; Gabriela Montero, 38, originally from Venezuela; and the 29-year-old African American clarinetist Anthony McGill). It was also that Williams, in the music, was falling over himself to convey messages about patriotism and solemnity and austerity and profundity.

Bringing the high arts represented by the soloists together with the populist Williams was yet another clause in the message of inclusion that the Obama team has generally been at pains to convey. Williams is not an unfamiliar figure in the concert hall, but known for film scores and pops concerts rather than so-called art music. Unfortunately, faced with this assignment, he made the mistake so many popular artists do when confronted with classical music: Rather than write what he is good at, he corseted himself in a straitjacket of what he thought he was supposed to be doing.

So we could have had a stirring film-score-type theme proclaiming a new beginning for Barack Obama. Instead, we got a chamber piece, at once sober and frilly, in which -- and this is the ultimate cop-out -- Williams, after opening with an original melody, reached for an existing theme, the familiar Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," to convey the bulk of his message. Referencing history is well and good, but since Aaron Copland already worked "Simple Gifts" very effectively into the classical pantheon, its use here merely evoked a well-worn idea of clean, honest, all-American values, without contributing much new to the discussion beyond various instrumental embellishments.

The spareness of instrumentation was certainly in keeping with Obama's recurrent message about the country's difficulties, and his desire not to make his inauguration too festive. The solo lines conveyed a message of vulnerability -- the lone violin rising above the crowd is a familiar but effective metaphor -- and the fact that the four voices ultimately intertwined to work together while each retaining its own flavor was also a useful simile. Williams did draw on one strength, that of writing a singing theme for strings (both Ma and Perlman have, of course, been featured on Williams soundtracks in the past, notably "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Schindler's List"). Still, the music seemed awfully austere for an event that calls for at least some measure of celebration. When you want to get a job done, call in the Marines: The U.S. Marine Band played long and well throughout the ceremony, and overall provided a better soundtrack to the event than Williams's cameo.

Since Obama has harked back so deliberately to the model of Abraham Lincoln, it's worth noting that Lincoln, an opera fan, chose to include the arts at his second inauguration, according to the music historian Elise Kirk, by mounting an entire inaugural opera: Flotow's "Martha," a work without much political relevance. A message that can be drawn from this is: If you want to include the arts, let the arts have their head and go where they will. If you want symbols, stick to soundtracks. Or bunting.

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