Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thoughts from Inauguration Day

Tuesday afternoon, I gave a "Soundscape" presentation for Market Square Concerts for the students at the Capital Area School for the Arts in downtown Harrisburg: you can read the post over at The Market Square Concerts Blog which primarily covers works on the first half of the program by Elliott Carter and Gy├Ârgy Ligeti. Tomorrow, assuming I can focus on something other than this pernicious toothache, I'll post the "Road Map to the Goldberg Variations" that was Part 2 of that presentation.

At first, after realizing I'd agreed to do the talk on Inauguration Day, it concerned me the students would miss the opportunity to watch history being made. As a 10-year-old, I had seen John F. Kennedy's inauguration and the memory is still very powerful, especially watching him take the oath of office and seeing Robert Frost try to read a new poem he had written for the ceremony but was unable to between the glare of the sun and the wind blowing his papers around (he recited another poem of his from memory instead).

As it turned out, due to the students' scheduled at the school for their afternoon classes, arriving between 12:15 and 12:30pm, they would miss Barack Obama being sworn in as our 44th President anyway, even if we could have figured out how to get some kind of video coverage into a building built in 1821 (long story short, it didn't work). I was fortunate to watch it myself, barely, from a laptop screen with spotty reception, arriving just in time to hear Aretha Franklin singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" - sweet!

I can't say much about John Williams' functional "occasional" piece, Air & Simple Gifts, written for Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, Yo-Yo Ma and Gabriela Montero (whether it was planned to be a diverse ensemble or not, the performers included a Jew, an African-American, an Asian-American and a Latino woman). Perhaps suitable for the occasion, however unrealistic it may have been for an outdoor performance on a day with sub-freezing temperatures, it was still not a memorable piece of music, beyond the memorableness of its "found source material," the Shaker Hymn "Simple Gifts" (many people might be familiar with the tune from Copland's use of it in his ballet, Appalachian Spring).

But it was nice to have classical music acknowledged at such an event even if it had to be with the major name recognition of a composer best known for his film-scores than for his "concert music." If it enters the concert repertoire, it won't be on its artistic merits, I imagine: scored for the same instruments Olivier Messiaen had used for a piece written when he was in a World War II prison camp, Williams' piece probably won't become known as the "Quartet for the Start of Term"...

Perhaps it fared no better, aesthetically, than Elizabeth Alexander's poem written for the occasion, "Praise Song of the Day" which suffered as much from the immenisty of the occasion as it did from the expectations heaped upon it.

First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion-sense has made rock stars of Isabel Toledo who designed the gown worn at the Inauguration, and Jason Wu whose white gown danced its way through the night at ten different inaugural balls. Even though Ms. Alexander's poem received generally poor comments from the press, it has already become a best-seller at

This is wonderful news for artists who could use a break like that, receiving that kind of exposure. I rather doubt John Williams really needed that kind of boost.

Anyway, you can read two reviews of Williams' music - here's the Washington Post's; and this one, from the New York Times which also includes video footage of the performance.

Needless to say, it was inspiring to watch Obama take the oath of office. Even if the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court muffed it - in an abundance of caution, (oops) they did it again Wednesday night in the White House just to make sure it was all legal, just in case there's ever any argument it wasn't, the first time around.

Having grown up in the '60s watching the violence of the Civil Rights Movement playing out on TV news and photographs in the newspapers, it was amazing to see an African-American elected by the people of the United States being sworn in as our President. I can't imagine what it must be like for those people who had lived those experiences I merely watched over 45 years ago.

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There has been much talk in recent months about a "Secretary of the Arts" position in an Obama cabinet, including an on-line petition. I'm not sure if it's the way I want to get government involved in fostering culture in this country, even though many European countries have a ministry of culture. Perhaps my concern is not so much this administration but how it might have been handled in, say, the last one. Some say it would lead to the politicization of the arts in this country (though it already is, even without government subsidies that often keep the arts afloat in other countries).

Some say the arts are a local concern, not a federal responsibility, not sanctioned by the Constitution. Which of course, as a document, knew nothing about cars and trucks or gasoline and electricity to warrant the creation of cabinet-level departments overseeing the nation's transportation and energy policies.

Others say the arts, like any business, should be allowed to succeed or fail according to the dictates of a Free Market Economy, which no doubt explains why the auto industry has gone, hat in hand, begging for bucks in Washington in the waning months of the Bush Administration.

I'm still not sure how I would vote on the issue, if it were up to me - though I did sign the petition, do I really want another bloated bureacuracy with a high-paid director? - but I thought Matthew's post at Soho the Dog made some pretty fascinating reading, comparing the amount of personal income and tax revenue generated by the Big 3 Auto-makers and by the arts in this country. The auto industry generates only 1.4 times what the "non-profit arts and culture industry" generate, and yet the auto industry receives 120 times what the federal government gives to support the arts.

Something to think about as we look to the future, hopefully beyond the darkness of our present economic crisis. Check the comments, too: Matthew makes a lucid argument for the cabinet-level responsibilities of an Arts Secretary.

My hope is, though, that if it does come to pass, they don't pick some big name celebrity - like John Williams - to serve as a figure-head to run it but a savvy arts administrator with enough background in all the arts to give it some serious consideration.

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UPDATE: Saw this Thursday morning on ArtsJournal, from Musical America, about the Obama Transition Team meeting with arts groups' leaders even before the Inauguration.
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- Dr. Dick

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