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February 12, 2009

John Williams work for Obama is now on iTunes

Air and Simple Gifts, the score that John Williams wrote for the inauguration ceremony and that a stellar quartet gave the essentially simulated premiere of just before Barack Obama was sworn in, is now available from Sony Masterworks exclusively through iTunes. It's bound to be a brisk seller -- I certainly heard from a lot of folks right after the ceremony asking how to get a copy of it.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero recorded the music a couple days before the inauguration as an emergency backup in case of frigid weather. As it turned out, it was too cold for string instruments to function well, so the quartet more or less pretended to play the piece, while that recording was beamed to the throngs at the Capitol and those tuning on radio or TV.

Taking as inspiration the fact that Obama was known to enjoy the music of Aaron Copland, Williams effectively placed the indelible Shaker tune, "Simple Gifts," into the middle of the new piece, conjuring up memories of that hymn's use in Copland's Appalachian Spring. Not everyone was impressed with Williams' work. Some objected to the Copland borrowing, others to the fact that the music lacked an air of pomp and ceremony. But I think the composer, limited to writing something that could only last a few minutes, came up with a sensible solution, one that managed to evocate a whole world of American music in the brief time span. And, with its reflective opening and close, Air and Simple Gifts struck an appropriate note for what are, after all, very sobering times. 

It was hard on Jan. 20 to hear the Shaker melody without also thinking of the words that go with it: " 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be." Pretty good advice for Washington, I'd say, any day of the year.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:07 PM | | Comments (0)

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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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