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November 5, 2009

Classical music day at the White House (part 2)

Our presidents typically don't have a lot of interest in classical music. Sure, our Chief Executives -- more likely, their First Ladies -- will attend the occasional performance in a concert hall or opera house (especially when there's not much choice, as when they're on state visits to other countries), and there will be periodic appearances by classical artists at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But we're not talking a real high priority for most administrations.

So Wednesday's focus on classical music at the White House, attended by 120 school kids during the day and a crowd of cultural and political types in the evening, was a welcome gesture.

I'm not expecting a massive trickle-down effect that, given the personal popularity of the Obamas and whatever press exposure the day generated, will translate magically into increased music education and attendance at classical music events around the country.

But this classical music day had considerable significance. As pianist Awadagin Pratt said to me after the midday concert for the students, "to have the office of the President support this -- you can't beat that."

Unfortunately, the press did not have access to the workshops/master classes that were given throughout the White House for the students by Pratt, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and guitarist Sharon Isbin.

But we got to hear the day's two performances in the East Room. I reported earlier on the afternoon one, introduced and attended by Michelle Obama.

Her husband was back from a trip to Wisconsin that day in time to join her and their daughters for the evening performance. The audience included some notable classical music figures. Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop was accompanied by the orchestra's president/CEO Paul Meecham.

Violinist Daniel Heifetz, who runs the excellent Heifetz International Music Institute each summer (it used to be in Annapolis and relocated to New Hampshire several years ago), was there with his wife Janne. I also spotted Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser. And from the acting world, Edward Norton.

The President's senior advisor David Axelrod was up front, chatting before the concert with Sen. Bayh. In his introductory remarks, President Obama welcomed "the many members of Congress who've joined us tonight -- despite what you may have heard, they are actually a civilized bunch."

After describing "a busy day of classical music here at the White House," the president had some kindly advice that drew several laughs. "If any of you in the audience are newcomers to classical music, and aren’t sure when to applaud,

don’t be nervous. Apparently, President Kennedy had the same problem. He and Jackie held several classical music events here, and more than once he started applauding when he wasn’t supposed to. So the social secretary worked out a system where she’d signal him ... Now, fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud. The rest of you are on your own."

As it turned out, there were no multi-movement pieces on the program, so the issue of applause never really arose. That program, a mix of styles and sounds, didn't quite add up to a cohesive statement about classical music or its rewards, but there was consistent warmth to the music-making (if not truly outstanding playing from any of the evening's stars).

Isbin started things off with a gently shaded account of Albeniz's "Asturias." Pratt seemed determined to prove President Obama's observation, in the opening remarks, that classical music involves "precision, of course; but there’s also great feeling and improvisation. There’s structure; but there’s also creativity." The pianist certainly played with great feeling, and there was even a sense of the improvisatory as he tore into his own arrangement of Bach's C minor Passacaglia, which took a fanciful turn near the end when Pratt threw in references to other pieces, drawing chuckles with a snippet of "Hail to the Chief."

The day's earlier focus on music students resonated in this concert when Weilerstein repeated her collaborations from the afternoon concert with two very promising young players. Sujari Britt, 8, again revealed delightful technical assurance and warm phrasing in a bit of Boccherini. And Jason Yoder again backed Weilerstein's plangent cello solo in Saint-Saens' "The Swan" with beautifully articulated accompaniment on the marimba. Those two duos earned standing ovations, led by the First Family. On her own, Weilerstein tackled the over-long finale to Kodaly's Sonata for unaccompanied cello with technical and expressive power.

Bell got a chance to make up for his flub in the afternoon during Paganini's "Cantabile," playing it effortlessly and charmingly with Isbin accompanying. The violinist also turned in a typically colorful performance of Ravel's "Tzigane," with Pratt providing mostly smooth work at the keyboard. Bell, Weilerstein and Pratt provided a passionate close to the evening, generating quite a few sparks in the finale of Mendelssohn's D minor Trio. (The whole concert will be broadcast on Sirius XM Satellite Radio at 6 p.m. Friday.)

At the beginning of the evening, President Obama talked about the long history of music in the East Room, mentioning that the first formal concert to be held there was during the administration of Chester Arthur (an operatic program). He made a telling point of noting that, while the audience Wednesday night in the East Room was enjoying the proceedings, "all across America, in community centers and concert halls, in homes and in schools, the sounds of classical music are lifting hearts and spurring imagination, just as they always have. And it’s easy to understand why ... It’s music that defies simple definition even as it speaks to a common, universal language."

It's a message I hope we hear more often, and even more loudly, from the White House.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (4)


I really appreciate the administration making the arts a priority. I just wish they'd do something for Jazz, our Nation's only original art form...

Jazz was the focus of the first installment in the White House Music Series back in June -- the same sort of activities for students during the day and a concert at night. Of course, I know it will take a lot more than a single day for any art form to make a big difference, but it's at step. TIM

Hooray for Michelle Obama for her efforts in promoting the arts in schools. Music can enhance children's lives and should never be eliminated from school curriculums. Although I ended up in a science related field, I cherish most what I learned from my two piano teachers.
Also hooray for Joshua Bell and his "flub." Music is a living thing and therefore is not always perfect. It was good for students to see and hear how he handled this.

I thought that flub was a useful lesson, too. Thanks for commenting. TIM

sounds like you had quite the evening, Tim!

It had its moments, I admit.

Bell and his flub showed musicians are human and he too can make mistakes in spite of the countless hours of learning and rehearsals. Glad he made an introduction speech about the Paganini piece which he said nobody could perfect the composer's music. I admire how Bell handled it. He remained calm and turned it to humor w/ the expense of his mistake. He redeemed himself at the President's attendance later that night.

Thanks Tim for this wonderful article. Let's hope for more good things coming out of this workshop and support by the administration. Until then, it's still talk and gesture.

Thanks for commenting. We'll all be watching to see what follow-up there may be to this event. TIM

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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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