Obama takes power classically


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Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America exactly at noon today Eastern time in a fashion unlike any of his predecessors. The ceremony ran a couple of minutes late, and as the clock struck, Obama had not yet been sworn in. Rather power changed hands as he sat quietly on the steps of the Capitol and -– along with much of the rest of the world -- listened as violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill performed the world premiere of “Air and Simple Gifts” by John Williams. (You can watch and hear it below.)

Power changed hands just as the sober introductory air segued into an animated riff on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” on which Aaron Copland famously wrote a set of variations for his ballet “Appalachian Spring.”


An African American assuming the highest office in a once segregated land is a moment I wasn’t sure I’d ever live to see, although I have always been convinced that it would one day happen. But I had never dared dream that so momentous an occasion –- indeed an inauguration of any president -– would be signaled by classical musicians playing on the Capitol veranda.

We have reason to believe we have an arts president. So now, let’s get to business. Williams’ four-minute quartet struck an apt tone of seriousness and celebration. It was Americana through and through. Politics were served by a violinist born in Israel, a cellist of Chinese heritage born in Paris, a pianist from Venezuela and an African American clarinetist from Chicago. None is a stuffy classical player but likes to collaborate widely. That’s all to the good. But ...

Frankly, the Williams quartet was a bit hokey. For Obama to be an arts president he will have to think higher and even further out of the box. If he really wants change, he will have to have the courage to listen to artists who can’t be controlled, whose vision is greater than his and his handlers. We need artists not merely to sing our achievements but to communicate new ideas and to spread our voice through the land and the world. Obama must mobilize the arts to help him change the mood of our nation and raise our energy.

To that end, I offer a list of music people (not merely musicians but poets, video artists, stage directors and others who have connected valuably with music in one way or another) I would like to see at the White House: Elliott Carter (get him while you can, he’s 100), the Kronos Quartet, John Adams, Gustavo Dudamel, Peter Sellars, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, John Ashbery, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bill Viola, Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Ashley, Osvaldo Golijov, James Levine, Philip Glass, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Dawn Upshaw, David Robertson, Ned Rorem, Kent Nagano, Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson.
Many more might be added to the list, but these are rich, wise, inclusive original voices. And, Mr. President, I guarantee your life will be richer and the tone of America will rise if you listen to them.

First, though, I fear arts education must begin with the media. I recorded “Air and Simple Gifts” off NPR in order to hear it again. Announcers, too busy reporting on responsibility to be bothered to practice it, gabbed through Montero’s opening piano solo and broke once more during the middle of the score.

-- Mark Swed