White House hosts stars (and stars-to-be) of classical music

IN TUNE: Violinist Joshua Bell and guitarist Sharon Isbin perform Wednesday at a White House workshop for 120 classically-minded music students, hosted by Michelle Obama.
IN TUNE: Violinist Joshua Bell and guitarist Sharon Isbin perform Wednesday at a White House workshop for 120 classically-minded music students, hosted by Michelle Obama. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

President Obama Wednesday thanked artists for sharing their passion. He was speaking, of course, about classical music, before the evening concert in the East Room that concluded the White House's day of classical music. "Of course," because passion appears to be classical music's distinguishing trait these days: It was certainly what all four performers -- guitar player Sharon Isbin, pianist Awadagin Pratt, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and violinist Joshua Bell -- were straining to bring out.

Passion is all very well, but it felt a little vague, even flailing, without a sense of what all the fuss was actually about.

The day began with master class-cum-discussion sessions the performers led with 120 young musicians from eight music schools from around the country, including Washington's Levine School of Music.

"It's the people's house," said Michelle Obama of her current home in opening remarks, indicating her desire to welcome people. That desire hasn't traditionally been a part of classical music's image, though it is more than ever today. If the four performers had anything in common, it was their young, fresh, down-to-earth image, from Pratt's dreadlocks to Bell's signature untucked shirt and blue jeans at the afternoon concert for the students that followed the so-called master classes. ("He mostly told us about his life," said Justin Green, a high-school violinist from New Haven, Conn., of Bell's session.)

The event could be said to represent a sea change in the image of classical music at the White House. For administrations past, classical music was the logical, even the only, form of entertainment: socially acceptable, properly high-church. Ignacy Jan Paderewski played for Teddy Roosevelt; Leon Fleisher played for the Eisenhowers; Grace Bumbry sang for the Kennedys. But tastes have changed. Jazz and rock began creeping into the picture as early as the Carter administration, and classical music in the Obama White House is one constituent among many. This classical-music day was the fourth in a series of White House events that have already celebrated jazz, country and Latin music.

The Obamas are approaching the issue of bringing arts into the White House in an inclusive, democratic manner, both in terms of the audiences -- aspiring students as well as the traditional elite -- and of the performers, who Wednesday represented a cross-section of ages and ethnicities.

But what becomes clearer, in this presentation, is that classical music no longer automatically holds a position of predominance among today's power elite. The day's message was, "Look, classical music can be fun," even though this message is also a tacit admission of the widespread assumption that it isn't.

President Obama reflected that, indeed, in his opening remarks, joking that newcomers to classical music shouldn't worry if they weren't sure where to applaud: President Kennedy had the same difficulty, said Obama, who noted that he himself fortunately had Michelle to cue him properly. It was not exactly a hopeful sign of classical music's artistic significance, though to judge from the hearty laughs, it resonated with many in the audience.

The onus, therefore, was on the players to sell themselves, and they did plenty of emoting while performing the snippets of music -- encore pieces and individual movements. At both performances, Isbin was the most high church, determined to prove the seriousness of her instrument but turning in anemic performances as a result.

Pratt, in the afternoon, offered Schubert's four-hand Fantasy in F-minor with the 14-year-old student Lucy Hattemer; in the evening, he presented his own offbeat arrangement of Bach's C-minor Passacaglia and Fugue, culminating in a haze of rhythmically loose emotion and a little quote of "Hail to the Chief."

Weilerstein, her tone singing and gorgeous and her emotions excessively on her sleeve, got to play at both concerts with the day's show-stealers, the self-possessed 8-year-old cellist Sujari Britt, making a throaty burr on her instrument in a Boccherini duet, and the 16-year-old Jason Yoder, a marimba player whom Michelle Obama invited to appear after hearing him in Pittsburgh at the G-20 summit, and whose sweet tone was a fine match for Weilerstein's in an arrangement of Saint-Saƫns's "The Swan."

Bell shines at such events: Crowd-pleasing is his specialty. He was the only performer who really talked to the audience -- especially appropriate when one is dealing with an audience of young musicians in a quasi-learning situation, with no program notes. Coming in as the biggest star of the evening helped him mask -- as is so often the case -- an insouciant quality in his playing that can border on the sloppy. Still, he had a big, singing tone in a Paganini "Cantabile," a duet with Isbin. And he, Weilerstein, and Pratt threw out sparks and sweat and lots of noise in the finale, the last movement of Mendelssohn's First Piano Trio. It was a game end to an evening that felt slightly more fun than people had expected, though not as fun as a really great performance.

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