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January 24, 2009

Taped inaugural performance doesn't deserve scorn

A few more thoughts on the leftover musical story from Jan. 20.

So, OK, the massive sea of chilled witnesses to the inauguration and the untold millions watching on TV heard a taped performance of John Williams' Air and Simple Gifts, the interlude between the swearing-in of Joe Biden and Barack Obama. People understandably thought they were getting the real thing, especially since violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero did such a fab job pretending to perform the new work. Some folks, also understandably, feel they were had, that this was duplicitous, hardly the kind of transparency they can believe in. Well, get over it.

What were the musicians to do? In sub-freezing temperatures, none of them could have functioned at their best, and the string instruments, in particular, could not have stayed remotely in tune. Once that reality sunk in, inauguration organizers had few options. Cancel the musical portion of the program? That would have left an awkward hole in the program. Have everyone sit there and listen to a four-minute tape? Equally awkward. I think the best choice would have been to do just as they did -- let the musicians play in sync to the recording -- but then, after the whole ceremony was over, inform all the TV networks and news agencies of what had been done to save the event. That disclosure would have stopped all the nonsense flying around about Milli Vanilli and worse.

This was no deliberate, pre-meditated scam. It was surely all about the moment, the appearances, preserving the original intent of the ceremony. What seems to be missed in some of the thoughtless chatter is that the four excellent artists still had to endure the cold, just as if they had been playing full-out, and that they managed such a persuasive effort to let the music make its intended effect. (I have a feeling that those who didn't think much of what Williams wrote are braying the loudest about this would-be scandal.)

To me, what happened on the West Front of the Capitol doesn't come close to fraud. It was an honest attempt to deal with a difficult issue, leading to an unfortunate after-effect caused by a lack of foresight -- those bright folks behind the scenes should have known that this thing could not go undetected. (I was hardly alone in suspecting a recording from the first notes; I just didn't see it as such an important issue that I should raise a hue and cry over it.)

You don't hear anyone complaining that Aretha Franklin sang to a pre-recorded track. I really can't see any reason to complain that those four instrumentalists perched above the presidential contingent gamely did as they were asked to do. They fulfilled their commitment to Williams, the inaugural committee and the masses.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:07 AM | | Comments (3)


Even as an amateur pianist I was suspicious about the performance of the stellar quartet in frigid weather. I couldn't figure out how the instruments would hold their perfect tuning. I also couldn't fathom playing with cold fingers even if I had world class talent. I noticed that Ms.Montero was wearing gloves minus the fingertips. I still would love to have been on the West Front of the Capitol to hear them play. Even out of tune and played with icy fingers, the music must have been beuatiful.

Basically not a big deal. The planners of every important, large-scale outdoor event that's likely to be under international scrutiny and attended by thousands of witnesses will make sure that all the musical elements are backed up by recordings. Inaugurations, Olympic ceremonies… And it's nothing to do with the weather, because you'd do it even if it were warm.

It really only becomes an issue when the performer on the recording is not the same as the performer presented at the event. Hence the reaction to the little girl singing – or not singing, as it turned out – at the Beijing Olympics. (So if Yo-Yo Ma made the recording but some cello-playing "babe" were presented as the performer because she was "prettier" then we'd have reason to complain!)

Except for the few score of people twenty or thirty feet from the 'stage,' outside, in the wind, with no acoustical shell, no one would hear a 'live' performance. For those on the Mall, only amplified sound could be heard, anyway. So, what's the difference between amplified sound and playing a recording made under studio conditions by the folk 'playing'? Be glad classical music got on the programme and move on.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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