White House could help classical music by having fun with it

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

With its series of musical events last year, the White House has already started to send a signal that the arts are an important part of our nation's life. And it's wonderful that classical music was part of the mix.

But I worry that part of the signal -- especially where classical music is concerned -- is that the arts are a duty more than a pleasure: good for us, but a little dull. I fear that President Obama spoke for a majority of his generation when he expressed his concerns, before the classical music event in November, about knowing when to clap.

I think the strongest message the White House could send to our nation about classical music is that it's actually enjoyable. There's a certain gravitas associated with the office of the president, but music should represent a way to break free of that. There's no better way to send a signal about the benefits of classical music than to show Obama having fun listening to it.

I suggest that the White House dispense with classical music convention and start hosting shorter concerts: half an hour, 40 minutes, 20 minutes. A more informal format might mean that you could give several concerts a year -- perhaps in tandem with state visits or other official functions -- rather than a single longer one that bears the weight of representation on its shoulders.

White House concerts are a great way to promote American music. But the suggestions I'm about to make aren't just about promoting the wide range of music that falls under the heading of "classical" -- it's also about things I think that the president and others might enjoy. So here are some half-hour concert ideas:

Have William Bolcom, an eminent Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, appear with his wife, Joan Morris, and do a few sets of his cabaret songs. Have the Bang on a Can All-Stars do David Lang's "Cheating, Lying, Stealing" (we could use more electric guitar in the East Room); or have the group eighth blackbird perform Steve Reich's "Double Sextet." Both composers are recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize.

Invite Meredith Monk with her ensemble to do some of the pieces from her album "Book of Days." Ask Steven Blier, director of the New York Festival of Song, to stage part of the program of Harlem Renaissance songs he did a few years ago. Have Wendy Sutter play Philip Glass's gorgeous "Songs and Poems for Solo Cello" (they're a couple; he wrote them for her). Have mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sing songs by Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Stephen Foster. Have the Kronos Quartet play George Crumb's "Black Angels."

Not all of these concerts would appeal to everyone, but they represent a broad enough spectrum that everyone would find something to like. They'd honor a lot of significant American artists. The music is engaging, stimulating, quirky, alive. And no one would have to worry about when to clap.

White House concerts also have a representational function. Yet it's not clear what role music plays in our nation. There are two large classical organizations in Washington that bear the word "national" in their official titles: the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra. (There's also the National Philharmonic at Strathmore, but let's start with the big ones first.) It's not clear that either of these institutions plays a national role, nor are they the best in the country, but it would be fantastic if they could be used in some way as part of a national vision for the arts.

So here's one more suggestion: Invite both of their artistic leaders to the White House as part of your half-hour concert series. Have the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, give a short piano recital. Have the general director of the Washington National Opera, Placido Domingo, sing. These are both people of considerable presence and stature. The president would probably enjoy them, and it would be at least a sign that our so-called national symphony and national opera company might have some role to play in our nation's cultural life, which we're all eager to promote.

Furthermore, it would be fun. And that's got to be part of the point of the exercise -- or there isn't any point at all.

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