Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hearing Chamber Music at the Inauguration... like a hearing a pin drop in a bowling alley

However "controversial" it might be, the broadcast of John Williams's Air and Simple Gifts at the inauguration was a success, making a favorable impression on a lot of people. It put a spotlight on a gifted All-Star quartet (violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Ma Yo-Yo), pianist Gabriela Montero, and especially clarinetist Anthony McGill) that just happened to represent diversity in diverse ways. And it gave composer John Williams yet another opportunity to incorporate someone else's work (in this case "Simple Gifts," the Shaker dance already famously classicized by Aaron Copland) into his own oeuvre (as he did by grafting Gustav Holst's "Mars" from The Planets unto his score for Star Wars.)

Where the performance didn't seem to work was at the inauguration itself. For anyone familiar with outdoor performances on strings, woodwinds, and piano, the quality of the broadcast performance was too good to be true—in fact, it turned out to be pre-recorded. Which, of course, was only appropriate considering how inappropriate it is to have a violin, a cello, a clarinet, and a piano making music at such a huge outdoor gathering in Washington, DC in the wintertime.

A piece for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano is what one would typically consider to be chamber music, to be enjoyed in a smallish room, or chamber. In case you've never been to the National Mall, where the performance took place, you might not realize that it is a large outdoor expanse where more than one million people gathered for the Obama inauguration. In other words, the National Mall is not a chamber. And even though the idea of having those four great musicians performing chamber music on the National Mall might have been well-intentioned, it was musically inappropriate. It might've been better to have the quartet perform before and after the post-inaugural luncheon, which was held in National Statuary Hall, an actual chamber in the United States Capitol. But that, of course, would also depend on the hall's acoustics.

Anyway, here's the pre-recorded quartet.

Source (5:24)

And here's Marilyn Horne singing an orchestral arrangement of "Simple Gifts" and three other Shaker songs at Carnegie Hall. Horne sang "Simple Gifts" at the 1993 inauguration of Bill Clinton.


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