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Prerecorded Inaugural Quartet: A 'Live' Experience Loses Something

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

The real problem with Tuesday's piece lay in the conception: in trying to have four soloists play under winter conditions.

But that probably wasn't on Obama's mind when he extended his invitation to Ma and Perlman.

"He said, 'I am fond of Copland,' " Ma says. "I thought to myself, Copland didn't write anything for violin and cello. And we needed help on this." The two instrumentalists turned to the composer John Williams, who worked the familiar tune "Simple Gifts," known from its use in Copland's "Appalachian Spring," into the four-minute quartet.

And the other logistics -- finding space on the crowded dais for the performers, working out wheelchair access for Perlman, whose legs were crippled with polio in childhood, and dealing with the temperature -- took "hundreds of hours," Ma says.

But when you're dealing with the president-elect of the United States, you don't want to bog him down with details.

"I don't think talking [to him] about production values would have been helpful," Ma says, laughing. "He gave us the concept. We tried to work with it."

Staff writer Richard Leiby contributed to this report.

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