Monday, January 21, 2013

What's missing from the music of the Obama inauguration

At President Barack Obama’s second inauguration ceremony earlier today, Beyoncé sang “The Star-Spangled Banner," American Idol winner (and former Ron Paul supporter) Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (it’s liber-TEE, not liber-DEE), and sweet, balding Baby James Taylor sang “America the Beautiful” (a little sharp there, James).

Tonight, the music continues at the inaugural balls—just two official ones this year, due to current economic conditions. At the Commander in Chief’s Ball, performers will include Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Chris Cornell, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, and Marc Anthony. At the Inaugural Ball, Alicia Keys, Black Violin, Brad Paisley, Far East Movement, fun., John Legend, Katy Perry, Maná, Smokey Robinson, Soundgarden, Stevie Wonder, Usher, and members of the “Glee” cast.

Where’s the classical music? I’m prompted to ask by Tessa Retterath Jones, who works for the Schubert Club, a major presenter of classical artists in the Twin Cities. (In April, Jessye Norman will give a Schubert Club recital; she sang at President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.) Tessa wrote on Facebook: “Just because 2009 was a screwup isn’t a reason to abandon classical altogether. There is no way Kelly Clarkson should be added to the list including Jessye Norman, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma. This was one of the best ways to familiarize the masses with some of the absolute best classical… Really frustrated by this.”

With pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill, Perlman and Ma played at Obama’s first inauguration, the “screwup” Tessa mentions. It was so cold that Tuesday the musicians knew they would never make it through the new work John Williams had written for the occasion, so what we heard over the national airwaves was a prerecorded version of the piece. It wasn’t Milli Vanilli (that comparison was made as soon as the news went public), but it wasn’t live. (And neither was Beyoncé.)

Earlier today, the Los Angeles Times noted that “one mark of a competent chief executive—especially one responsible for leading a nation—is an ability to learn from past mistakes. On that count, President Obama’s omission of classical music from his second inauguration ceremony on Monday … seems less a cultural snub than a wise move. That’s because the classical portion of his first inauguration ceremony … was a fiasco.”

Oh, puh-leeze. Let’s agree that it might be best not to expose an acoustic instrument , such as a violin or cello, to freezing temperatures. (Taylor played acoustic guitar, but he kept it very short, singing just the first verse of “America the Beautiful” in a performance that lasted less than a minute and a half.) Let’s not make this a matter of Obama “learning from his mistakes” like a “competent” chief executive. Did he personally choose the music? Pretty to think so, but doubtful. Is featuring classical music at a national – make that international – ceremony like an inauguration a “mistake”? Shut your mouth, LA Times.

The Washington Post put this more politely: “Obama’s well-meaning but not deeply informed feelings toward classical music have not exactly been encouraged by critical response to his forays into the field … So perhaps we critics should change our tone. Sorry. Mr. President. We appreciate your taking an interest in our field. Please continue to notice this music, and we promise to hold our tongues for the next four years about whether or not we agree with your approach.” Well, we don’t have to beat him up, but neither do we have to keep silent. (And “please continue to notice this music” is simply pitiful.)

The same Post writer, Anne Midgette, earlier wrote a piece called “White House could help classical music by having fun with it.” Full of good ideas, this still makes programming classical music sound like an arduous, head-scratching task. We’re talking about the White House, for God’s sake. The President of the United States can get anyone he wants to perform there, except, perhaps, someone whose political views prevent an appearance. But it can’t be that hard to find out who the really exciting classical performers are today, crook a finger, and bring them in. And maybe keep it casual and relaxed. Nix the tuxes and set aside some Tweet Seats.

The total omission of classical music from the inauguration ceremony and both inaugural balls is deeply disappointing. Renee Fleming could have sung “The Star-Spangled Banner.” So could Kathleen Battle, Audra McDonald, or why not bring back Jessye Norman? Why not have violinist Mark O’Connor play one of the balls, or Turtle Island Quartet? They’re all fun. Joshua Bell is fun, and he’s also cute, which shouldn’t really matter but does.

As deeply disappointing (maybe more, for me) is the total omission of jazz, America’s increasingly marginalized art form. Is jazz no longer fun? Tell that to Robert Glasper or any of today’s musicians who are infusing jazz with hip-hop (and hip-hop with jazz). What about Esperanza Spalding? Hello? I could name a lot of names, but I won’t. (Okay, one more: Poncho Sanchez. Now there’s a party in a beard, and putting his Latin jazz orchestra somewhere on the bill would have been a nice gracias to the Latino voters who helped Obama win reelection.) When the President and his staff want more names, there’s a terrific resource within shouting distance. Pianist, composer, performer, bandleader, and MacArthur fellow Jason Moran is Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center. BTW, his wife, Alicia Hall Moran, is an opera singer, and she probably knows a few people.

Millions enjoyed Beyoncé, Kelly and James at the ceremony earlier today, and those lucky enough to have tickets will no doubt have a great time at the balls tonight. This is not about disrespecting the talents or efforts of those tapped to perform at these momentous and widely publicized events. Rather, it’s about expressing dismay at an opportunity lost to show that America is also about classical music and jazz. Both should have a presence in today’s events. Not because including them is the right thing to do, and heaven knows it’s not the politic thing to do, but because they are part of our national fabric and identity. They are vital and festive and celebratory. Let’s invite them to the next party.

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