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Last time around, the President ordered classical music. So what went wrong in 2013?

At his first inauguration, Barack Obama had Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill playing a John Willams variation on the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts.

The four players represented distinct communities of the American melting pot and the integrative symbolism of old worlds and new was missed by no-one. I reviewed it live on the day for Bloomberg.


This time around, not a single classical musician has been invited to perform at the inauguration. Read the cast list for yourselves. Aside from a contemplative choral piece at the church service, the show is pure showbiz.

Why is that?


UPDATE: We have been informed that the Eastman String Quartet will play background music during the lobster lunch. Grrr…

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  1. Well, there are two choruses. And remember–it’ll be freezing out there today, and instruments get cold, and opera singers are freaked out when singing outdoors. Furthermore, all the classical selections were pre-recorded, and I think that is “meh” anyway. Let’s just hope the two choruses have a classical work on there!

  2. Ah, well, it’s his party, I guess…. ;-)

  3. Only one household name in classical music – and he performed last time. Shows how fewer and fewer people care about classical music — including the president!

  4. Perhaps in 2008 there was a much larger influence of the Clinton team? It is well documented that the Clintons have close relationships with many who performed then.

  5. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Let’s start planning the program for the next Clinton inaugural on January 20, 2017. Just remember that the President’s Own (aka the Marine Band) will be playing and many of them are graduates of Amercia’s finest music schools who chose the security of the military rather than the insecurity of a musician’s life even (or especially!) in major orchestras in large cities.

  6. Greg Hlatky says:

    Why is that? Because you’re a rube and a sap. Because you’re a self-selecting mark. Because you’re now the proud owner of the deed to the Brookyn Bridge. Because you sent your credit card information in response to an e-mail promising you 30% of a fortune smuggled out of Nigeria. Because, like an infatuated schoolgirl, you thought that the least unintentional sign was proof positive that the object of your passion really, really loved you. Because progressives are routinely cult-of-personality believers. Because you thought that because President Obama shared your political inclinations he also shared your artistic ones.

    Your credulousness would be sad if it wasn’t so comical. When are you going to learn? Classical music carries no political influence whatsoever. Beneath the veneer of sophistication, Obama is just another Chicago pol who cares for nothing beyond votes. Identification with Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Rihanna delivers votes. Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t. Perhaps understanding this is the start of understanding why public funding of the arts in the US is a non-starter.

    • That was a sharply-pointed reply that has a vicious personal attack: A not-so-belle-lettre containing Anthrax! Is this response suggesting that Robert Fitzpatrick bet on the wrong horse? Or that Mr Hlatky thinks that a Republican has more class? I doubt that either party owns a stake in musical sophistication, really. George Bush
      41 and his false Dimitri son were hardly any more sophisticated. This is just an observation.

    • Feeling better now?

  7. Actually, there is a bit of classical music – before the Inauguration:

  8. I think it’s pretty clear: Obama is still being called an elitist by the NRA and other right-wing organizations and he feels he has to do everything he can to appear populist in his tastes. And as a previous commenter noted, he used the two most famous classical musicians in the country in 2009 (Ma and Perlman). He’d have to turn to the “B-List” if he was to go with another classical name today.

    To his credit, the inaugural luncheon today will feature a string quartet of musicians from the Eastman School of Music.

    • Daniel Farber says:

      B-list? Are you joking? As for “right-wing” organizations representing populism, it needs to be remembered that the President who invited Rudolf Serkin to perform at the White House was named Ronald Reagan! I’m still waiting for Mr. Obama to invite Leon Fleisher or Murray Perahia or artists of similar stature on Brian’s “B-list” to perform there. I’m old enough to remember when President Kennedy invited Casals, Schneider, and Horszowsky to perform. Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions were in the audience. At some point, Kennedy invited Stravinsky to dinner. It’s all symbols, of course, but the symbols are resonant (so to speak) and damned important.

      • Reggie Benstein says:

        Daniel, not wanting to make this about politics, but the Republicans of era Reagan and the Republicans of today are quite different, as I’m sure you realize. Take a look at the senior Romneys compared to this edition…. mother Romney being a devoted patroness of music. Can you imagine what would happen if Mitt expressed the same desires for support of the arts ? tsk tsk…

        Btw, I do believe Jackie Kennedy was the one interested in music… Jack I’m not so sure about.

        • @Reggie said, “Btw, I do believe Jackie Kennedy was the one interested in music… Jack I’m not so sure about.”

          It’s my understanding that JFK tended to doze off during the numerous classical performances that Jackie scheduled for them.

          • It’s fairly widely known in the UK that Condoleezza Rice is a fine classical pianist and performed the Brahms F minor Quintet with members of the LSO at Buckingham Palace during a state visit. She’s a fairly current Republican politician, isn’t she? Maybe this sort of thing just isn’t reported back in the US – after all, it’s not unknown for politicians of all sides to distance themselves, in public, from high culture.

          • Actually, Halldor, Condoleezza Rice is not currently a politician. (She never was, really – she never has run for public office and has always said that she never will.) After her term in the Bush administration ended, she returned to her old position at Stanford University.

          • Condoleeza Rice seems also to have a great sense of appreciation and humility. She attends the same DC church as one of my family members. An artist colleague of mine in Minnesota asked me to give a painting of his to her (or her SS protection). She sent a beautiful letter to him, thanking him for honoring her with the painting.

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          Jack’s interests were show tunes, country & western and nookie. It was said the only music he really appreciated was “Hail to the Chief”. He told an aide, “Pablo Casals? I didn’t know what the hell he played. Someone had to tell me.” After attending a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet, JFK said to a press secretary, “I don’t want to have my picture taken shaking hands with those Russian fairies.”

      • Petros Linardos says:

        I, too, wish the White House would do more to elevate the image of classical music.

        Part of the problem has to do that related events that take place their don’t receive their due publicity. It took me some effort to find these links:

  9. Tom Moore says:

    Why is that? because neither the President, nor anyone in government, knows anything about classical music. Right?

  10. Among this year’s performers are non-professional but highly acclaimed choirs from Brooklyn and Staten Island, the first a gospel choir, the second an amazing children’s group from PS 22. Brooklyn and Staten Island were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. I applaud President Obama’s intelligence and taste in choosing performers who represent music-making at the local level and the spirit of survival and courage.

  11. Steven Honigberg says:

    I remember thinking and commenting out loud ‘they didn’t miss a single note’ 4 years ago in Washington’s 20 degree wind chill. Then I found out it was prerecorded. Disappointment washed over me. I was especially disappointed in the artists whom I have so much respect for. But was it their fault? I for one, couldn’t bear another prerecorded shtick.

    • Agreed. Performing to prerecorded music, even though ‘pragmatic’, should have left a sour taste in everyones’ mouths.

      • A worse taste would have been left by the strings going out of tune almost immediately in the below freezing temperatures – and the piano keys sticking down. The only other alternative, I suppose, would have been to not appear at all.

        • Or to have not appeared completely outdoors, perhaps partly protected by plexiglas. There might have been other alternatives to canned music.

          On the other hand, how can we forget how out of breath Aretha Franklin sounded that day, and she was actually live.

    • Renee Fleming sang live.

  12. The ‘classical music” played at the 2009 inauguration was canned, the players air-clarineting, -violining, -celloing, and -pianoing (using a dummy instrument) to their own recording. And let’s face it, this was sensible as none of these instruments, nore any other chamber music combination, would really have been appropriate performance before a mass audience in that cold weather. The thought was nice, but such events are really either opportunities for large wind bands with cold weather experience or musical genres with native amplification.

  13. Reggie Benstein says:

    Because they ran out of repertoire ?

    I’m trying to think of another piece of apple-pie Americana that a) could be played by classical musicians and b) resonates with more than the dreaded ‘elites’.
    Anything seen as elitism might be avoided, considering the times, but I’m just guessing at the motivation.

    One thing for sure, the selection of Beyoncé to sing the national anthem is just disappointing and sad, in my opinion.

    • The comments under that article are much more reasonable than the article itself; those by Gabriela Montero and George Daugherty are particularly accurate.

  14. Jim Turzer says:

    I listen to music while skiing, walking on the beach, hiking in the mountains, riding my bike, etc. I can do without most of it at a pompous, multi-billion dollar government ceremony. What a waste!

    • A “multi-billion dollar government ceremony”? Really? That’s what you think the inauguration cost? Rather than skiing, walking on the beach, hiking in the mountains, riding your bike, etc., maybe you ought to try reading a newspaper.

  15. John Parfrey says:

    As GW points out, the quartet in 2008 was miming to canned music which, in my view, was pretty underwhelming stuff. I’m a trained classical musician and I felt it was a real dead point in the ceremony.

    And Greg Hlatky . . . . chill out!!

  16. Robt. Switzer says:

    Being able to compare today’s Inauguration ceremony with that of four years ago, I cannot criticize the absence of classical music this time around. The ceremony was tighter and more cohesive. The music that was performed consisted of traditional American songs performed mostly by contemporary singers — and I might add sung live and very well. It should be noted that President Obama commissioned the poet Richard Palanco to compose and read a poem commemorating the day, and I for one found it most moving.

    As for Mr. Hlatky’s rant, he’s entitled to his opinion as irrational as I believe it to be.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Well, we have hereabouts a couple of if-only-Stalin-knew comments suggesting that the President is being restrained by the potential violent reaction of those Rethuglican-NRA meanies to classical music. Elsewhere, the proprietor wrote a post darkly implying that President Obama’s erstwhile opponent, a former governor of Massachusetts (!), was the harbinger of an American Taliban for saying in passing that an third-tier agency that didn’t exist 50 years ago might be abolished. Someone’s irrational, but I don’t think it’s me.

  17. The title of a certain well-known author’s book is “Who Killed Classical Music?” not “Who Is Killing Classical Music?” The verb is in the past tense. It’s over…dead. In its day, that which the Culture Industry subsequently named Classical Music was a vital art music, drawing upon, but not limited to, music of the past. The passing of this music’s custodianship to the academic world has been a disaster. We will see if it can recover. In the meantime, I will not bemoan the loss of celebrity “classical” musicians finger/lip/bow syncing for national television.

  18. Dr. Marc Villeger says:

    Blame it on the shred… ;-)

  19. Anna Bennett says:

    That would be poet Richard Blanco.

  20. Robt. Switzer says:

    This is to correct a misstatement I made in my previous comment. The name of the poet who appeared at the inauguration is Richard Blanco, not Polanco. I apologize for my error.

  21. This has little to do with politics or the musical preferences of the country/President. This article, which Karen posted and few seem to have read, is correct:,0,4483091.story.
    The main reasons for not hiring classical musicians were practicality and integrity (i.e. not prerecording music for practicality’s sake), not the hatred of classical music. They had the quartet last time in good taste, but are respecting the audience by not feeding them a fake performance, and respecting classical music by not misrepresenting this institution with an artificial appearance. This was a mistake they learned from four years ago.
    Consider the facts; cynicism is only healthy in small doses. People are not constantly wishing for the death of classical music as so many would like to think.

    • The article to which you provided the link is [redacted]. The comments to it – especially those by Gabriela Montero and George Daugherty – are far more knowledgeable and fair than that article.

  22. Robin Blonstein says:

    The reason? Obama did what he wanted to do because he’s a lame duck and he can. This was the music that he liked and selected. Take it at face value. No gimmicks. No symbols. Nada. I am firmly convinced that he personally chose each performer. With perhaps some family input. (Michelle likes Beyonce) As far as eschewing classical music? I doubt he gave a whit. It had been done and not successfully. It was his party and we can all cry if we want to. Obama is showing his true colors these days…watch him closely…on all fronts.

  23. Roberto Gonzalez says:

    A couple of points:

    Lots of John Philip Sousa was played at the inauguration. While this may not be significant to Europeans, he was one of the classical American composers of the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century.

    On the subject of band music, the San Francisco Golden Gate Park Municipal Concert Band, a union group that plays a regular concert series during Summers at the band shell at Golden Gate Park, was asked to play the inauguration of Mayor Art Agnos, some years ago. The inaugural committee asked for a list of repertoire available to the band, and one of the apparatchiks found a work whose name started with “MARCH”…

    … By Berlioz… Wait for it…

    They requested the “MARCH TO THE SCAFFOLD” from Symphonie Fantastique!!!!

    The band musicians were only TOO happy to accommodate the mayoral inauguration committee…

    I was told that story by the director of the band.

  24. I was thinking the same sentiments expressed above. Not sure who planned the programs this time around.

  25. Ignacio Martínez-Ybor says:

    The icononic music played at the swearing in was presented in the most dreadful way possible. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was in a totally revolting arrangement, souped-up, cheap pop-music style. The other contributions by estimable artists all, were equally disgusting. Even Beyonce, a singer I have always enjoyed, made me wince with her deplorably jazzy rendition of the national anthem. Iconic, patriotic songs should be presented in a straightforward, direct fashion, with minimal tarting-up. Unfortunately this is a common occurrance. Its frequency does not enhance its acceptability, to me, anyway. These patriotic numbers are simple songs, songs of the people that should be sung from the heart and be always ABOUT THE SONG, not about the performer’s skill in jazzy embellishments, mawkish arrangements or whatever. In an otherwise flawless, short, elegant ceremony, in which even the poem was understandable, vivid and well read, for me the music wrested quality from an otherwise classy celebration.

  26. The musical of the orchestra played was rather ventilating with presented in an awful way for the musical piece chosen instead of the classical music that is transformed into the composer piece.

  27. Robt. Switzer says:

    I’m amazed that this subject has drawn such attention and conflicting responses. President Obama’s first inauguration was criticized for using canned classical music because the live musicians were constrained by the freezing cold. The second time around, the Inaugural committee selected four traditional American pieces, all patriotic songs, to be performed live by generally-respected popular singers who can actually carry a tune. The songs may not have been classical, but they are American classics. The other two pieces, both mandatory, are the official song of the vice-president, “Hail, Columbia,” and, of course, the official song of the President, “Hail to the Chief.”

    Having actually attended a presidential inauguration when I was a page in the House of Representatives and later having worked in the office of a U.S. Senator, I’ve witnessed what goes on when planning this kind of event. It isn’t easy to please everyone, and the target is usually the masses. Unfortunately, when classical music is put on the bill, the people in charge are frequently and undeservedly called elitists. As for the U.S. Marine Corps band, it more often plays marches, although it performs other music as well. While it happens to be a superb band capable of playing a wide range music, we must keep in mind the type of event this was and the time constraints involved. As I commented in a previous reply, I thought this was an especially well-planned ceremony. The music and speeches did not cause any boring lags. The singing performances may have been given a pop flare, but they were never irreverent. Richard Blanco’s poem was beautifully written and read by him, and to me, most inspiring.

    Let’s not forget that President Obama has not succumbed to Republicans’ calls to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting System or reduce either’s funding. When in New York, he’s taken his wife to the theatre on several occasions. The Obamas are highly educated people with a wide range of tastes. Appreciating Beyoncé and Al Green doesn’t preclude one from enjoying classical music, too, and vice versa. As for Inaugurations, programming choices have to be made, and someone will always be dissatisfied. I think the critics of the ceremony would be far better off spending their time volunteering for charity than shooting at shadows.

  28. Robt. Switzer says:

    According to the Huffington Report, the U.S. Marine Corps Band issued the following statement today regarding Beyoncé’s performance:

    “The Presidential Inaugural Committee requested that the Marine Band accompany Beyonce Knowles-Carter in the performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at the 2013 Inaugural Ceremony. However, there was no opportunity for Ms. Knowles-Carter to rehearse with the Marine Band before the Inauguration so it was determined that a live performance by the band was ill-advised for such a high-profile event. Each piece of music scheduled for performance in the Inauguration is pre-recorded for use in case of freezing temperatures, equipment failure, or extenuating circumstances. Regarding Ms. Knowles-Carter’s vocal performance, no one in the Marine Band is in a position to assess whether it was live or pre-recorded.”

    The link to the full story:

  29. This just in: Beyonce lip-synched! She recorded her questionable rendition with the Marine band the night before. What does that say about all the arguments concerning the lack of classical musicians at the inauguration? To me, it says nothing. This inauguration was about the (unofficial) swearing-in of the President of the United States. Everything else is mere window-dressing, filling up the time, giving more exposure to over-exposed performers. It’s all so unimportant. But then, that’s what folks seem to care about — the trivial. Heck, everyone’s talking about Michelle’s bangs. Not much discussion about Obama’s speech. .

  30. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    I could go on forever but will spare you all. Go Hillary.

  31. How about a rousing rendition of “The Internationale.” Although it would have been more appropriate yesterday for Obama.

  32. Paul D. Sullivan, Boston US says:

    Good post Reiner.

    Few people know Sousa was a classically trained violinist (he played 1st violin under Offenbach at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia ,1874), conductor and composer. Outside of his marches it very hard to find much of his other music. A recording of his operetta “El Capitan” is available and very nice. Most composers, like Sousa, who wrote what is considered “light classical” have all but disappeared from today’s concert stage.

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