To mark Barack Obama’s second inauguration, I wrote a piece in the Post a couple of weeks ago about the quartet that was performed at his first.
I attended the 2009 inauguration in order to write about the music, but in the event, I found the quartet the least exciting part of a generally exciting weekend. (I got to cover Aretha that weekend, too.) My experience was muted by the fact that, even though I was in the ticketed seats, I was far away from the performers and not even in sight of one of the video screens. I therefore had no way of telling that the music was pre-recorded, though through common sense alone I should have been able to figure it out.
After I learned the conditions under which the work was created, in a follow-up interview with Ma, I was a lot more sympathetic to the whole endeavor. The musicians had no choice but to have a new piece written; there wasn’t anything appropriate in the repertoire for them to play. The result was a fine example of making lemonade out of the lemons life gives you — but was judged, by me and most others, in comparison with the musical masterpieces that theoretically might have been available. (What great works of classical music would you select for performance as part of an inauguration?)
It’s occurred to me more than once that Obama’s well-meaning but not deeply informed feelings toward classical music have not exactly been encouraged by critical response to his forays into the field. The White House’s classical music event in November of 2009 was a mixed bag as well. I did helpfully make some suggestions, also in print, about ways the Obama White House could present classical music in a more fun, accessible, and high-quality vein, but of course the tacit message there was still that the White House was doing it wrong.
There certainly isn’t any classical music included in today’s inaugural ceremony. So perhaps we critics should change our tone. Sorry, Mr. President. We appreciate you taking an interest in our field. Please continue to notice this music, and we promise to hold our tongues for the next four years about whether or not we agree with your approach.
Above: “Air and Simple Gifts,” the John Williams piece written in haste for Obama’s first inauguration, and pre-recorded for the simple reason that acoustic stringed instruments are very difficult to play outdoors in very cold weather.