Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Sunday night a 20th-century invention called televison again proved, even after three decades of considerable doubt, that it can be put to grand purposes. A genius sat down to play the piano for a nation, and the triumph was everybody's - TV included.
"Horowitz at the White House," produced for the Public Broadcasting Service by WETA-TV, was the second televised recital in history by 73-year-old Vladimir H. Horowitz - the first was on CBS in 1968 - and thus automatically momentous. That it was recorded (earlier Sunday) in the East Room of the White House made it a historic cvent as well as a musical, cultural and emotional one.
Not all the emotion was captured by the telecast, which ran just over an hour and was heard simultaneously on some public radio stations. Director Kirk Browning chose a respectful approach rather than a truly intimate one, and made the repeated error in judgment of concentrating on the pianist's hands at the expense of the pianist's face. True aficionados, of course, would probably have considered Browning's judgment correct, but a wider audience should have been considered.
Camera placement in the East Room was obviously not ideal and early shots of President Carter introducing Horowitz were poorly framed so that the back of the pianist's head poked up at the bottom of the screen.
News correspondent Jim Lehrer was the wrong man to handle the commentary; it required a soft touch rather than a hard edge. We did not need to be told after Horowitz's performance of Chopin's "Polonaise" that it was a "stirring rendition."
This was one little bombshell that even us dopes who watch TV were quite able to discern for ourselves.
But the occasion was one in which it was almost inevitable that the medium was at least slightly inadequate to the message. Wrong shots called by the director were offset by some stunningly right ones, including a quick look at Horowitz's sudden bemused shrug when he heard the president refer to his "fearless expression of emotion" in the introduction.
The only real sour notes of the day were sounded by CBS and NBC, the two networks that have evening newscasts on Sundays. The Horowitz recital was reported as news and an excerpt played on each network, but neither advised viewers that they could see the entire concert later, on their public TV station.
NBC alluded vaguely to a "public telecast" of the performance (as opposed to a private telecast?) and CBS mentioned only the word "television."
Perhaps it's fitting that a night on which public television had a chance to shine also had two commercial networks behaving cheaply and performing a clear disservice to the public.
In days to come audience measurement figures will show that the telecast was trounced by the likes of James Bond on another network. In the first analysis, however, the ratings don't matter a poop.
Lehrer said erroneously that Horowitz was playing for the president; in fact, thanks to television, he was playing for each of us in our own living room and we loved it.