2013 Obama inauguration avoiding classical music gaffe of 2009

One mark of a competent chief executive – especially one responsible for leading a nation – is an ability to learn from past mistakes.

On that count, President Obama’s omission of classical music from his second inauguration ceremony on Monday (barring last-minute additions to the announced musical lineup of Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor singing, respectively, “The Star Spangled Banner,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful”) seems less a cultural snub than a wise move.

That’s because the classical portion of his first inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2009 was a fiasco.

An all-star quartet of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera, was assembled to perform a piece John Williams had composed for the occasion, “Air and Simple Gifts.” But faced with the freezing temperatures and chill winds of an Eastern seaboard late-January outdoor gig, the musicians decided that discretion should be the better part of valor.


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While they appeared to be playing live, what went out over the sound system was a pre-recorded version, prompting (perhaps unfair) comparisons to Milli Vanilli, the pop duo whose brief fame during the late 1980s and early ‘90s turned to infamy when it was proved that they’d lip-synced their live performances and hadn’t even sung on their purported recordings.

“We decided that it would have been a disaster if we went out there with that cold, with the wind, and played our instruments out of tune,” Montero explained a week later. “Can you imagine what kind of tone it would have set? . . . It would absolutely have been a pathetic way to lead a president into his oath and the moment that this country was waiting for so eagerly.”

Two official inaugural balls on Monday will feature a multicultural assortment of pop music talent, including Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Usher, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, Marc Anthony, Smokey Robinson, Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Soundgarden, Mana, Fun, Far East Movement and members of the cast of “Glee.”

The closest thing to classical music will be an appearance by Black Violin, a classically trained violin and viola duo from Florida that has rejiggered Electric Light Orchestra’s old classical-meets-rock formula by deploying classical string riffs atop funk and hip-hop rhythms.


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