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The Performance was on Tape. So What?

Truth be told, the musical logistics of the four classical musicians never came to mind on Tuesday as I watched them perform during the Obama Inaugural.  Of course, ‘perform’ is probably the wrong word to use in the above sentence.

The somber, elegiac tones before President Obama’s oath of office at the inauguration on Tuesday came from the instruments of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two colleagues. But what the millions on the Mall and watching on television heard was in fact a recording, made two days earlier by the quartet and matched tone for tone by the musicians playing along.

The players and the inauguration organizing committee said the arrangement was necessary because of the extreme cold and wind during Tuesday’s ceremony. The conditions raised the possibility of broken piano strings, cracked instruments and wacky intonation minutes before the president’s swearing in (which had problems of its own).

“Truly, weather just made it impossible,” Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said on Thursday. “No one’s trying to fool anybody. This isn’t a matter of Milli Vanilli,” Ms. Florman added, referring to the pop band that was stripped of a 1989 Grammy because the duo did not sing on their album and lip-synched in concerts.

Ms. Florman said that the use of a recording was not disclosed beforehand but that the NBC producers handling the television pool were told of its likelihood the day before.

The network said it sent a note to pool members saying that the use of recordings in the musical numbers was possible. Inaugural musical performances are routinely recorded ahead of time for just such an eventuality, Ms. Florman said. The Marine Band and choruses, which performed throughout the ceremony, did not use a recording, she said.

Ooh-rah to the Marine Band for manning up for game time.

As someone who’s played the slide trombone for nearly 20 years, I can relate to the concerns of Misters Ma, Perlman and their colleagues.  It’s not everyday you get to see a classmate’s clarinet or alto saxophone literally ‘freeze up’ as the fingerings become impossible to move in cold weather.  Or seen the valves on a trumpet become unable to move because the combination of value oil and the player’s own saliva did what comes naturally to these liquids in temps below 32 degrees.

Take the time someday to ask any brass player in a college marching band if they own a plastic mouthpiece and they’ll tell you when it’s used.

Since I never played one, I can’t imagine what weather would do to string instruments like the cello and violin, or the tuning of a piano.  Who can blame these musicians, many of them in the possession of antique instruments, for trying to ensure their performance wasn’t altered by the environment’s effect on their instruments.  After all, most modern instruments are now designed and built for playing indoors, not in weather like on Tuesday.

That being said, I can relate to this essay in the Washington Post today about the thrill of hearing a performance “live.”  As having performed more concerts than attended, it’s always been a joy to hear people after a concert tell you how your contribution to a piece made them feel.

Frankly, the only part of the performance I did care about was the composition done by the legendary John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, the Meet the Press theme, etc.) which I felt was nothing more than a blase re-arrangement of Copeland’s “Simple Gifts,” which a marvelous piece in its own right.

Relive it again here, form your own opinion.

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  • Oh, what’s a $250K Strad compared to The Event of World History?

    At 15 degrees F., those instruments are as fragile as flowers in the same temps. And the fingers don’t work so good, either…