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Obama takes power classically

January 20, 2009 |  1:38 pm


Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America exactly at noon today Eastern time in a fashion unlike any of his predecessors.  The ceremony ran a couple of minutes late, and as the clock struck, Obama had not yet been sworn in.  Rather power changed hands as he sat quietly on the steps of the Capitol and -– along with much of the rest of the world -- listened as violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill performed the world premiere of “Air and Simple Gifts” by John Williams. (You can watch and hear it below.)

Power changed hands just as the sober introductory air segued into an animated riff on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” on which Aaron Copland famously wrote a set of variations for his ballet “Appalachian Spring.”

An African American assuming the highest office in a once segregated land is a moment I wasn’t sure I’d ever live to see, although I have always been convinced that it would one day happen.  But I had never dared dream that so momentous an occasion –- indeed an inauguration of any president -– would be signaled by classical musicians playing on the Capitol veranda.

We have reason to believe we have an arts president.  So now, let’s get to business.  Williams’ four-minute quartet struck an apt tone of seriousness and celebration.  It was Americana through and through.  Politics were served by a violinist born in Israel, a cellist of Chinese heritage born in Paris, a pianist from Venezuela and an African American clarinetist from Chicago.  None is a stuffy classical player but likes to collaborate widely.  That’s all to the good. But ... 

Frankly, the Williams quartet was a bit hokey.  For Obama to be an arts president he will have to think higher and even further out of the box.  If he really wants change, he will have to have the courage to listen to artists who can’t be controlled, whose vision is greater than his and his handlers.  We need artists not merely to sing our achievements but to communicate new ideas and to spread our voice through the land and the world.  Obama must mobilize the arts to help him change the mood of our nation and raise our energy.

To that end, I offer a list of music people (not merely musicians but poets, video artists, stage directors and others who have connected valuably with music in one way or another) I would like to see at the White House:  Elliott Carter (get him while you can, he’s 100), the Kronos Quartet, John Adams, Gustavo Dudamel, Peter Sellars, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, John Ashbery, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bill Viola, Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Ashley, Osvaldo Golijov, James Levine, Philip Glass, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Dawn Upshaw, David Robertson, Ned Rorem, Kent Nagano, Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson.
Many more might be added to the list, but these are rich, wise, inclusive original voices.  And, Mr. President, I guarantee your life will be richer and the tone of America will rise if you listen to them.

First, though, I fear arts education must begin with the media.  I recorded “Air and Simple Gifts” off NPR in order to hear it again.  Announcers, too busy reporting on responsibility to be bothered to practice it, gabbed through Montero’s opening piano solo and broke once more during the middle of the score. 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Itzhak Perlman, from left, Yo-Yo Ma and Anthony McGill during the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama. Credit: EPA/Justin Lane.

Comments () | Archives (34)

And Lee Johnson of the Dead Symphony, Radiohead, Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In The Heights" and a few others. We must look more seriously at the constantly exploding world of pop music, from salsa/ tejano/latino to the world sounds coming and integrating themselves from Calypso/Reggae/Dub to Afro-pop, Gypsy Fusion and Brazilian contemporary evolutions of tropicalia.

I disagree about the quartet being hokey. I thought the piece was heartfelt, and, frankly, there is nothing hokey about Perlman or Ma.

A world music, the true equivalent of Modern art was created decades ago, this world po trash is just the lowest common demonominator, not the highest. That was the jazz of Miles and Coltrane, Dizzy and Bird. AfrocCuban Bop and latin jazz, from that supposedly communist and enemy isle of Cuba leads the world in great musicians, which isnt pop fluff.

Yes, he may be a art President, but as stated above, a Collaborationist Art, true art. That which is about We, US, not the self absorbed whinings of Contemp art, the selfish Meism of the last half century. That is dead, thank god, in the deluge its patrons created and is upon us.

Art must fulfill it spurpose, not the childishness of self expression, but visualizing the fabric of life, of humanity, nature and the search for god, which is so key to Obama. And real life. The lil minigods of the academy are dead. Shut down Olympus, and give us Life. We artists are but one among many, our role no less than or more than a chef, a soldier, a banker. Do your jobs, Its not about YOU. Its about who WE are as a people, our past, build upon it, our present, know it, relish it, attack it with vigor, and the future, which will build upon what we lay down here, now.

Build well, but know your purpsoe and subject first, something truly rare and needed now.

art collegia delenda est

I suggest that there were no accidents here. If you read the words to "Simple Gifts" it describes what seems to be Obama's world view.
It is an ultimate anti-Materialism view.

bless the arts and God bless the creative forces redeem the heart of love amongst us as beautiful unity for peace and respect, God let us let the ugly fear and ignorance of violence end throughout earth peace to all life

The music played at the inauguration was beautiful and appropriate.
The Kronos Quartet is AWFUL. How could you reccommend such a group, Mark?

I cannot believe you called the quartet "hokey". What a snobbish and off statement. It was a beautiful piece, very accessible, very much in line with Obama's paradigm (now, I'm sorry to use such a hokey word as paradigm, but it is fitting). The most beautiful part was watching Obama listen to it, eyes closed, taking it all in.

As I write this, I am watching a designer break down the First Lady's dress today, and it reminds me of your article: overly picky.

Mark, this is the second comment from the LA Times I have read this evening, reflecting on the inauguration today. Not only do I completely agree with a previous comment, disagreeing with your assessment of WIlliams' piece for today, but I find it sad that you are so incapable of appreciating the beauty and profound meaning in SIMPLICITY! I, also, thought the composition was heartfelt. I guess this must imply that you have no heart!!!!!!! But, in addition to your cynical snobbery, you have revealed your ignorance, for the writer is correct: THERE IS NOTHING HOKEY ABOUT PERLMAN OR MA, AND MCGILL AND MONTERA STAND ON THEIR OWN AS WEEL

I like the fact that Steve Reich and Fresser Pecker and those other trendy phonies were not played. I agree that Ma and Perlman weren't playing Beethoven -- I think an argument could be made that would have been most appropriate, since Beethoven was a true advocate of science and democracy and human progress -- but it was good. Reich, et al, would not have been good or appropriate.

the quartet WAS hokey.

Well, I thought both the quartet piece and and all the layers of symbolism (the song "Simple Gifts" the backgrounds of the players, etc.) were completely beautiful and appropriate for the occasion. I'm sure we could all name lots of other artists to champion. For me, there should be lots of jazz, especially LATIN jazz, on the menu. And I prefer the Turtle Island String Quartet to Kronos. But I can't think of a better choice at all for that particular moment in which it was played.

Like many pieces commissioned for a major public event, the quartet intrigued but its performance was difficult to really hear. The structure of Mr. Williams work was fascinating but except for the exchange of glances between Ma and Perlman, the quartet sense of musical conversation and collaboration was confused by a roving imagery. Most obscured was the piano playing of Montero. Ultimately, I found this work impossible to evaluate with this limited and broken exposure. The use of the Shaker hymn echoing its use in Appalachian Spring was a nice homage to our nation's heritage and our gift for finding emotional complexity in the seeming simple. It sounded uniquely American and the background of the four performing musician was deeply moving in context. I hope to hear this composition again in a more musically kind setting. I honor all the artist involved and thank them.

I've been reading classical music commentary for decades, but rarely have I come across such unbridled pomposity. Does Swed really think anyone knowledgeable will be flim-flammed by his trotting out an A-list of musical fossils? THIS is why ordinary people find the classically-inclined to be looking down on them so often. And Swed resembles nothing more than a nerdy college boy trying to impress the girls by showing he knows the trendiest bands, but not realizing he's painfully out of date. Blech.

Enough. Today was an extraordinary day. Williams' piece was beautiful. Refreshing to see President Obama sitting peacefully under the spell of classical music. Must we criticize everything already?? CNN today - Obama's speech wasn't "his best." LA Times "the Williams quartet was hokey." ENOUGH. Let this man and his family and policies get into office for at least a day before we start ripping it apart.

ENOUGH. Embrace the joy.

Thank you, Mark. Spot on.

This inauguration has a deeper meaning for the entire planet, for several reasons. Why be so contemptuous of Williams and these wonderful artists? This wasn't a theater performance to be so coldly criticized. John Williams has brought joy to millions through his music. Perlman and Ma are model human beings, as well as among the greatest musicians ever to walk on this planet. They are kind and involved in many humanitarian efforts through art, something they clearly do not need for a living. Please, Mr. Swed, leave the criticism for the concert halls, and thank these wonderful artists for their effort to bring peace and hope in this delicate situation where life on this planet is hanging by a thread.

I had similar thoughts on my (much less well-written) blog. The piece was fine. The performance and performers were completely world-class and fantastic. But for me--and for others--it just didn't do it. It hit me as being something we've all heard many times before simply repackaged for a special occasion. And I question respondents here who are so quick to write off Mark's interpretation. That spirit of with us or against us is--I hope--behind us. Is the author truly "pitiable?" I sincerely doubt that.

I loved the American feeling and pastoral quality of the piece. It had a lovely, lilting and uplifting theme beyond the reference to Simple Gifts. Just-the-thing, I thought.
Kronos would have been OK but is sometimes a bit atonal & inaccessible for the tastes of the mainstream. Yeah, Williams is a bit corny sometimes . . . POPS n' stuff . . . but I think he created a warm and hopeful quartet here; not too sentimental - and the performers are everyone's favorites. Why not?! We don't need to go full-blown high-brow-elitist at this ceremony meant for Everyman. It was sweet and powerful. So be it.

Everybody wants what they want when they want it. I want and got Obama as President. Talk about major wish fullfillment!!!!

Whatever he does from here is not about my personal taste, but about what I do promote my choices and make myself heard. At least I feel like there is a chance. In the end, I am responsible for promoting the culture I adore, the music I love, the films I want to see and make. Where Government comes in, we shall see.

Give President O some time. We need a Culture Minister, let that be the first agenda we fullfill.

The only thing hokey was this "review."

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