Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: inaugural music

The pundits’ verdict on President Obama’s inaugural address – low-key, straightforward, somber – applies as well to the event’s signature music: not the customary Sousa marches and ceremonial tunes, but the pieces unique to this occasion.

Aretha Franklin sang "America (My Country ’Tis of Thee)" as a church singer, rather than a jazz or pop song stylist. Age has lowered the 66-year-old singer’s top notes and some of her vocal flexibility; but she may have tempered the soulful flourishes in any case, because of the profound historical resonance of the ascension of this country’s first president of African descent. R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the occasion, so to speak.

John Williams’ new piece for the inauguration, an Air with Variations on the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" (best-known as the main theme of Aaron Copand’s "Appalachian Spring"), was comparably understated, contrasting sharply with the triumphalism and/or emotional button-pushing that characterize his film music. The short piece, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero, has a short stretch of jazzy busyness but for the most part seems to aim for plain-spokenness with a wistful, nostalgic undercurrent.

The most musical moments of the ceremony – to use "musical" in its broadest sense – were spoken, in the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s spiritually affirmative yet playful benediction, in which old-time country preaching (and quotation of James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing") evolved into jazz poetry.

Update: Williams "was falling over himself to convey messages about patriotism and solemnity and austerity and profundity" in his inauguration work, but wound up merely filling "downtime before the main event," writes Anne Midgette in The Washington Post: