Friday, January 23, 2009
Review: Inaugural Arts Performances
During the inauguration on Tuesday, there were three events related to the arts: Aretha Franklin (pictured above) singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," a quartet performing "Air and Simple Gifts," and Elizabeth Alexander reciting her poem "Praise Song for the Day." Overall, they were successful, but I'm not convinced they were all performed to their best. Few could argue that Aretha is one of the queens of soul music. We all love Aretha, and her performance of the American patriotic standard we all sang in grammar school was excellent. Her command over the piece was most evident in the third verse where she used her voice to repeat in every imaginable melodic way the words "let freedom ring," recitative-style as in Baroque opera. But what will we remember best about her performance? That amazing hat that she wore, carrying herself in the tradition of Southern black women wearing their best hats to church (The New York Times called it "an outsized, glamorized church-lady hat"). Word has come out in the news that both Franklin's performance and that of the quartet were partly prerecorded. Franklin sang, but the music and background chorus was prerecorded (well, that was a bit obvious, since a chorus was nowhere in sight). The quartet's performance of John Williams's "Air and Simple Gifts" was quite beautiful, even if the Obama children were getting a bit restless. Williams is best known to people for his instrumental scores to blockbuster movies like Star Wars. Apparently the version of "Air and Simple Gifts" we heard was prerecorded as well. The quartet (Itzhak Perlman on violin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Gabriella Montero on piano, and Anthony McGill on clarinet) did actually perform live, but their sound was not amplified, so only those in the immediate vicinity could hear them. To be honest, I was shocked that they were doing it live because it was so cold. Having played piano for many years, I can attest to the near impossibility of performing any instrument with cold hands. Your limbs need to be limber (interesting word play there) in order to maximize musical output. So I'm not disturbed that it was prerecorded. I still have to download the piece though, because I do think it had some wonderful parts, although my memory tells me the clarinet was lost in the recording. Of course, the whole thing would have been better had Joshua Bell (one of my fantasy boyfriends) had been performing on the violin, but that's just my opinion. As for Elizabeth Alexander's poem, I admit I was disappointed by her delivery of it. She spoke clearly, articulating each word, but I felt that by doing that she ruined the overall tone of the poem itself. You're better off reading the poem on your own. It has more meaning that way. It follows in the Walt Whitman tradition of American patriotism and the middle/working classes. I don't think it's a great poem. Maya Angelou's inaugural poem for President Clinton in 1992 still gives me chills with its opening words, "A rock, a river, a tree." But Alexander's poem does still speak loudly about the idea of America, and how love and patriotism work hand-in-hand to help define an America we dream will come. The webpages for MSNBC have articles on each of the performances with video clips, so if you want to read/see more, click here for the quartet and click here for Alexander's poem and her reading. Below is the video of Aretha Franklin's performance (or click here to see it on MSNBC).