I’m a little surprised at how much blog and press coverage there has been of that little John Williams piece played at Obama’s inauguration. This was the first inauguration ceremony I watched in any length on TV and, as a Brit, I’d just assumed that something like this happened every time, just part of the general pomp. But, as I sift through the various responses this morning, Anthony Tommasini’s strikes me as capturing a general mood:
Classical singers have performed for inaugurations in recent decades. But to have a new instrumental piece played was most unusual, something that should gratify classical music lovers.
Why, exactly? We have ears, and we’re supposed to be a discerning bunch. Are we so easily fobbed off by some star names (hey – wasn’t that guy in The West Wing?) and a little bit of public recognition that the quality of the music doesn’t matter?
Who knows what Perlman, Yo Yo et al were doing up there, but the most likely explanation is prestige. Obama (or more likely his handlers) wanted a bit of high arts sheen to the proceedings. What’s a little bit surprising to me is how many commentators seem to have bought this so easily. Let’s look past the ‘whoo! classical music at the inauguration!’ bit: this was a new piece commissioned from John Williams, a composer who has become hugely wealthy and very well known by writing conventional scores (with a team of helpers) for big budget films that don’t rock the boat. This was not a new administration of aesthetes stamping its colourful mark on the next four years. This was a lacklustre choice drafted by a mid-level staffer, and Mark Swed is absolutely right to call Obama on this (although I don’t see how his list of alternatives moves us much further on, to be honest). If people are serious about improving the status of classical and contemporary music in America, they need to be a bit less willing to settle for such crumbs.
Some are happy with the nod to Copland in Williams’s piece. It might have looked like harking back to a bygone age (but, sadly, the same has to be said of a fading Aretha Franklin) but wouldn’t we all have preferred been some actual Copland?