Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quartet for the Beginning of Office / P. George

Fools, and even wise folks, sometimes rush in where others fear to tread. John Williams took on the august tradition of setting the pretty much Aaron-Copland owned Joseph Brackett Simple Gifts, and did a pretty good job of it, for the high-stakes arena of the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, on a frigid January 20, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

The work was performed by clarinetist Anthony McGill, pianist Gabriela Montero, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma -- actually "instrument-syncing" to a recording they had made on January 18. In a nation and world absolutely dominated by vernacular musics, this was the first chamber ensemble (and of the instrumentation of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, no less) to be performed at a U.S. presidential inauguration. As the music elapsed over the stroke of noon, Obama officially became President, as stipulated by the Constitution.

Williams's composition was indeed not only an homage to sturdy American traditions, as exemplified by Shaker composer Brackett, but also to Copland, one of Obama's favorite classical composers [did George Bush have any favored art composers? From any century?].

The ternary composition presents an original spare, descending modal melody -- ultimately ushering in (as in Copland's setting), the clarinet on the cantus firmus, whereupon variations and return wend their due course.

Critical response was mixed, as in Anne Midgette's review in the Washington Post:

"It was functional, representational music, and it actually did serve a function: It allowed everyone some downtime before the main event of the oath and the new president's speech. For although it was only four minutes long, a lot of people stopped paying attention and started talking to each other before the music was over.

Music, at such a ceremony, has a role much like the bunting and flags that adorned the west front of the Capitol yesterday: It provides a symbolic background and adds color. Air and Simple Gifts tried to carry so much symbolic weight that it almost collapsed under the burden. It wasn't just that its four high-powered classical soloists spanned a Benetton range of generational, ethnic and gender bases (Itzhak Perlman, 63, born in Israel; Yo-Yo Ma, 53, of Chinese descent; Gabriela Montero, 38, originally from Venezuela; and the 29-year-old African American clarinetist Anthony McGill). It was also that Williams, in the music, was falling over himself to convey messages about patriotism and solemnity and austerity and profundity.

Bringing the high arts represented by the soloists together with the populist Williams was yet another clause in the message of inclusion that the Obama team has generally been at pains to convey. Williams is not an unfamiliar figure in the concert hall, but known for film scores and pops concerts rather than so-called art music. Unfortunately, faced with this assignment, he made the mistake so many popular artists do when confronted with classical music: Rather than write what he is good at, he corseted himself in a straitjacket of what he thought he was supposed to be doing.

So we could have had a stirring film-score-type theme proclaiming a new beginning for Barack Obama. Instead, we got a chamber piece, at once sober and frilly, in which -- and this is the ultimate cop-out -- Williams, after opening with an original melody, reached for an existing theme, the familiar Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," to convey the bulk of his message. Referencing history is well and good, but since Aaron Copland already worked "Simple Gifts" very effectively into the classical pantheon, its use here merely evoked a well-worn idea of clean, honest, all-American values, without contributing much new to the discussion beyond various instrumental embellishments.

The spareness of instrumentation was certainly in keeping with Obama's recurrent message about the country's difficulties, and his desire not to make his inauguration too festive. The solo lines conveyed a message of vulnerability -- the lone violin rising above the crowd is a familiar but effective metaphor -- and the fact that the four voices ultimately intertwined to work together while each retaining its own flavor was also a useful simile. Williams did draw on one strength, that of writing a singing theme for strings (both Ma and Perlman have, of course, been featured on Williams soundtracks in the past, notably Seven Years in Tibet and Schindler's List). Still, the music seemed awfully austere for an event that calls for at least some measure of celebration. . . .

Since Obama has harked back so deliberately to the model of Abraham Lincoln, it's worth noting that Lincoln, an opera fan, chose to include the arts at his second inauguration, according to the music historian Elise Kirk, by mounting an entire inaugural opera: Flotow's Martha, a work without much political relevance. A message that can be drawn from this is: If you want to include the arts, let the arts have their head and go where they will."