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Prerecorded Inaugural Quartet: A 'Live' Experience Loses Something

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Millions of viewers heard a recording of the dulcet tones played by a celebrated quartet of musicians at Barack Obama's inauguration rather than the notes the group actually played for the new president. Video by AP

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

When Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist, got a phone call from Barack Obama asking him to play at the inauguration, he wasn't exactly thinking about space heaters.

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"He extended the invitation to Itzhak [Perlman] and me," Ma says. Perlman is the star violinist who performed with Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill at Tuesday's inauguration.

Well, "performed" is perhaps overstating it. What the audience on the Mall and at home heard, it turns out, was a prerecorded track of the John Williams piece "Air and Simple Gifts," which the quartet made two days earlier in a studio at the Marine Barracks. It was simply too cold Tuesday to perform at the players' usual standard.

"Our piano experts," says Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, "all say that the temperature really needed to be in the 50s for the piano to stay in tune." On the exposed platform where the musicians were sitting, Ma says, it was more like 15 degrees, with the windchill.

Ma is convinced that if the soloists had played without a track, "it would have been a disaster."

The same problem affected Sunday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial, where the contributions by the joint services orchestra and the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets were prerecorded as well, according to Tobe Becker, a spokeswoman for HBO. The taped selections that the audience heard included the opening salute and "Fanfare for the Common Man," as well as the accompaniments to the national anthem, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." The house band and the vocals by all the performers, however, were live.

"For inaugurals outside, there's a standard operating procedure," Ma says. "They always prerecord, no matter what." He added that the practice isn't uncommon for outdoor performances. "When I played for the Winter Olympics with Sting, in Salt Lake City, we did exactly the same thing."

And at the inauguration festivities of George H.W. Bush, when Ma played -- indoors -- with Frank Sinatra, the cellist says, "they actually had a recorded track, and [Sinatra] sang live into it."

Of course, hearing something performed live matters. There is a significance to being able to say, "I was there." It was because of this that more than a million people converged on the Mall to be present at President Obama's swearing-in -- even if they were so far from the Capitol that they couldn't actually see him in person.

So the idea that we didn't really hear this musical performance, that it was faked, makes people feel somehow cheated. We are a society that claims to place a premium on authenticity. We seize on, and ridicule, every example of lip-syncing in the past: Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson on "Saturday Night Live," Luciano Pavarotti at a "Pavarotti and Friends" concert in Modena, Italy.

We want it all live, even if live is meaningless. The fact is, it is impossible to hear a quartet of musicians in any meaningful way when you're outdoors in 30-degree weather among 1 million people.

But "live" isn't really about music. "Live," rather, is about sharing an experience, warts and all: about having been there to hear the tenor miss the note, to see the guitarist trip on a cable on the floor or to hear the greatest flood of sound, the first-ever performance of a new work. It is about bearing witness.


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