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January 26, 2013

Inaugural music: It's nice, but it's not a concert

In 2009, Barack Obama wanted to include a moment of uplifting music in his inauguration. So he called Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, two of the most beloved figures in classical music. He said he wanted them to play in the ceremony. He said he liked Copland. And he left it at that.

Ma and Perlman could have raised a number of objections. They could have said that there were not any pieces for violin and cello that fit the bill; Copland certainly didn't write one. They could have said that there was no time for someone to compose something new. They could have said that it was impossible to play their instruments outdoors in icy weather in the month of January. But none of those seemed a proper response to this well-meant and signal honor. So, thinking on their feet, they turned to John Williams, the film composer, with whom they had both worked before ("Schindler's List," "Seven Years in Tibet," "Memoirs of a Geisha"), who could write on deadline, and who was an expert at producing music tailored to a specific scene or mood.

The result was exactly what was ordered: a piece of earnestly uplifting music, "Air and Simple Gifts," that incorporated Copland and featured Ma, Perlman and two other artists, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill. Unfortunately, since it would have been impossible to play it live under the weather conditions that day, the artists prerecorded the music and then performed to a playback, and the idea that the music was faked, lip-synced, inauthentic seized the popular imagination, briefly, as if everyone had been subject to some kind of hoax. And the discussion about whether or not the music was any good, and about whether or not it had been right to prerecord it — discussion in which I, at the time, actively took part — eclipsed what perhaps should have been the main point, which was that it was nice that the president wanted classical music included at all.

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