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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  • dad29

    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…