Friday, January 23, 2009

Simple-Minded Gifts

I was not going to blog further about John Williams's inaugural music, written for the same ensemble as Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Given yesterday's development....

I stopped listening to the piece as soon as it turned into "Simple Gifts." Regular readers are aware that I am not a fan of Copland in Americana mode, and I have heard the damn tune too many times already in Appalachian Spring. Friends tell me that President Obama likes Copland - that's a plus in a president, regardless of what I think of Copland - and that there was a specific request from him for "Simple Gifts." Okay, all right, in that context, it does seem an appropriate choice, though you still can't make me like it. And aren't there better American composers available than John Williams? Not that anyone would have liked to sit in the freezing cold through a 45-minute version by Philip Glass, mind you.

The latest news, though, leaves me mad: what we heard was not what we saw. Those musicians sawing away in the cold were synching to a recording made two days earlier. Itzhak Perlman put it this way in a talk with Daniel J. Wakin of the Times:
"It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way," he said Thursday in a telephone interview. This occasion's got to be perfect. You can't have any slip-ups."
Like the administration of the oath of office, you mean?

The synching business bugs me because President Obama has been very clear that he wants his to be as transparent an administration as possible. His actions this week have followed his words; among other actions, he has cancelled a Bush II executive order giving former presidents an unreasonable degree of control over the fate of their presidential papers. He has ordered government officials to release more rather than less information.

It's a shame that the inaugural committee didn't follow suit. They could have handled the problem in two ways that would have been truthful before the fact: announce that because of the cold a recording would be used, then play a full audio/video recording, or they could have put the quartet indoors and video-relayed their performance to the crowd. The claim that the synching act was necessary is just plain wrong.


Steve Hicken said...

I quite agree with you, Lisa, and an audio/video transmission of a performance from the Rotunda would have been great.

It wrankles that the need for perfection was given as the reason for the Milli Vanilla impersonation. The cold was reason enough for a recording.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Steve.

Michael said...

I almost blogged about this, too:

"And aren't there better American composers available than John Williams?"

I have nothing against John Williams, and actually admire his work, but sheesh! Let's give him a rest already. I guarantee you that at some meeting about this, someone said "hey, let's get John Williams!", and that was the extent of the discussion on this. (I was available. heh heh.)

Same goes for Yo Yo Ma, I guess. There seems to be this idea out there that we can only handle one famous classical artist per instrument.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, all around. Ma, Lang Lang, and just a few others are the recognizable face of classical music these days, alas.

Jonathan Bellman said...

I did not recognize either the pianist or the clarinetist--isn't that just as relevant? Those weren't Stoltzman or Christina Ortiz up there. For those profoundly bothered by the perceived dissonance between a transparent administration and a dubbed commission piece, I'd like to recommend a couple of deep breaths. Remember that the Carter administration sought to be all moral and transparent and all like that, and was the most painfully mistake-prone (think Mr. Magoo) in history. Note that since the Obama campaign started, it's been no drama, get it done RIGHT, and don't eff it up. That's what we all saw, because they had a very dramatically effective and dependable Plan B in place in case the weather made actual play impossible, which it did. Good for them, good for them for not trying to keep it a secret (think the Chinese and that little girl singing at the Olympics), and now let's get on with it. Which, you will note, this President and his administration are now doing.

Paul H. Muller said...

Who schedules string players outdoors in January?

If I were Mr. Ma I would have politely declined to appear unless it was performed inside.

Up to this, Obama had presided over an almost flawless transition.

At least he is getting the important government things right...

Elaine Fine said...

The choice was, I imagine, made to appeal to people who otherwise wouldn't listen to classical music for more than a minute or two. John Williams is, as far as mass culture is concerned, the only "classical composer" that the public at large has listened to for more than a few minutes because of his film music. His connection with Perlman, who played a suite of Williams' movie music for one of those Oscar celebrations, makes Perlman a familiar-enough classical music icon for the star-struck mass culture to accept. I kind of like the fact that Perlman is a fantastic violinist and musician, and having someone so good ascend to the status of a cultural icon is a real coup for our side.

Yo yo Ma, through his television appearance at another one of those popular culture television celebrations (could it have been an Emmy show?) with James Taylor, and his "crossover" efforts and personal connections with very important and very influential people, was another logical choice for this event.

Perhaps the Quartet for the End of Time instrumentation grew out of that core. The clarinetist, Anthony McGill, who comes from Chicago, is the principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and has done a lot of high-profile playing with Ma. If they had picked Stoltzman for the job there would have been too much of an association with the Messiaen because of the Tashi recording. I think McGill is an excellent player.

Looking at the diversity of the ensemble: (one African American from Chicago; and two naturalized Americans, one from Taiwan and one from Israel), perhaps the committee thought that the the Latin American part of the musical spectrum should be represented. Even though she is not a "household word," Gabriela Montero, who is an American citizen from Argentina, and has an international career as a soloist, was made the fourth (and only female) member of the ensemble.

I was happy to have some kind of classical music represented in the inauguration. And I'm glad that they had the foresight to use a recording. (When I saw the ear piece in Perlman's ear, I imagined that they were synchronizing their playing to pre-recorded music). At below freezing temperatures no string instrument would stay in tune, and very little sound would even make it as far as a microphone.

By the way, a few years ago, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played for the Superbowl, the whole orchestra was flown down and given excellent seats in order to play along with a recording that they made in Symphony Hall the week before.

Elaine Fine said...

Oops. She's from Venezuela: I just associate her with Ginastera!

Brian Hinrichs said...

I agree with much of this and wish I had read it before blogging about it myself. Reading the NY Times "Frigid Fingers" piece, I was with everyone until the "This occasion's got to be perfect" line and your point that it could have been broadcast from inside is well taken.

Edmund G. Brown, Jr. said...

Freakin' Democrats. What will they screw up next . . .

Anonymous said...

The number of people who responded to my similar complaint with remarks like "They had to play a recording because it was cold" is extremely dismaying. They have utterly missed the point that it's not the recording that's the problem. It's the faked live concert that's the problem.

As Richard Nixon (and for that matter Bill Clinton) never figured out: whether the original deed was wrong or not, what's always wrong is lying about it.

Anonymous said...

I may write another post and just quote your last two paragraphs.