Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nicholas Kristoff on Big Agriculture

Mr. Kristof wrote a beautiful, soulful column today ("Food for the Soul," NYTimes, Aug 23, 2009).  Big Ag is yet one more example of what happens when capitalist values (e.g., efficiency) take over.  But I want to raise a question: he writes at one point that "industrial farming is extraordinarily efficient, and smaller diverse family farms would mean more expensive food."  Is this actually the case?

Consider the fast-food hamburger. MacDonald's offers a plain hamburger for 79 cents—that's so cheap that a poor person would be hard-pressed to go anywhere else for sustenance. (An organic apple costs $2.79/pound at my local Whole Foods.) Maybe a plain hamburger doesn't fill them, though, so they purchase a small bag of fries (also cheap).  But how does MacDonald's offer such cheap food? If only there was a way to account for the environmental and economic costs—the pollution created by industrial production of meat, the injury to the health of workers at the plants and the folks who live near them, the long-term consequences to the health of the poor people who subsist on MacDonald's—I'm sure that hamburger and fries wouldn't be so inexpensive. They'd probably cost close to, or more than, the $14 my local Manhattan restaurant charges for their excellent organic hamburger and potato salad. 

The trouble is that we can't account for those hidden costs because no one is paying them, so we have no idea what the amount actually is. Most of these costs either fall on the shoulders of individual consumers (doctors' appointments for poor health, relocation to escape pollution) or on no one (we don't have the technology to clean the contaminated environment around the plants; it's not being done, so it isn't "costing" anyone).  If large corporations were held responsible for maintaining the environment in such a pristine condition that their presence wasn't even noticeable, they could not mass-produce such cheap items.  Which in turn would mean we couldn't consume so massively, so thoughtlessly.  And wouldn't throw away so needlessly.  And live so soul-lessly.

In the end, we need to consider our economic problems as inextricably entwined with our environmental and health crises (obesity, diabetes, cancer). And, importantly, with the very value systems that led us to this point.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Piotr Anderszewski, musical architect (Review of Dec. 3, 2008 Carnegie Hall recital)

On Sunday, Oct 26 2008, I saw Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall and learned, yet again, that reviews and recordings are utterly unreliable predictors of live performance.  Often spoken of in reverential terms as a musical literalist who presents 'the closest thing to an x-ray of the score one could hope for' —is that really what one hopes for? musical fundamentalism?— Pollini turned out to be a master impressionist of the keyboard, much more interested in texture and color than in any literal rendering of music (the program that day was Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin).

I had no expectations whatsoever going to hear Piotr Anderszewski, since I'd never encountered him in either print or recording.  So much the better, because my mind was completely open to a new experience --  and Anderszewski's recital was definitely unlike any I'd ever heard.

He padded onto the stage just after 8 o’clock, gliding lightly and gracefully to the piano.  He’s only 40, but looks even younger; he was wearing a black crew-neck shirt with a black suit.  I just wish some publicist hadn’t decided he should look like a rock star (i.e., with a mop of hair brushed forward to touch his eyelashes); photographs of him in the program (with a more reasonable coif) reveal a comfortably handsome, open, engaging face. No matter; he sat down, and without hesitation he opened the recital with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor

If Pollini was sartorial, concerned with texture and color, Anderszewski was architectural.  One felt— one could almost see— the structure of each phrase within the whole: in the faster dances of the set, he sweeps you through arches, under ribbed vaults, up grand staircases and down them again; in the slower movements, he directs your attention to details you never realized were there—embellishing a spandrel, a cornice, an entablature. I think Bach’s music lends itself to this, but very few pianists create such “sound castles” in the air.  It was exhilarating. This guy also has a mean pianissimo: he can send the softest, tenderest tones ringing through the auditorium without a loss of texture or energy.  The only time this couldn’t be appreciated was during the soulful, yearning Sarabande, when not one but two—TWO!— people entered coughing fits that lasted the whole movement and didn’t have the grace to remove themselves from the auditorium. And the recital was being recorded!  I sorely wanted to hurl my program at them, but having only one, and there being two people convulsing in distinct parts of the Hall, I couldn’t decide which direction to aim. Anderszewski seemed unfazed, but I did note that he attacked the next dance, the Couperinesque Rondeau, rather pointedly. A boisterous Capriccio brought the partita to a close and roused the audience to exuberant applause.

The program continued with Faschingsschwank aus Wien.  I’ve never been that keen on Schumann, but Anderszewski’s intense, tender romanticism in the slow movements convincingly evoked exquisite longing. No doubt it was about Clara.

After intermission came “In the Mists,” a very impressionistic, atmospheric work in four movements by Janácek (sorry, I can’t figure out how to do the “ ˘ ”over the c).  No architecture here, but a pronounced sense of narrative progression within the filmy, Debussy-inflected textures. The work is a musical palimpsest, suggesting that memory both retains and erases the past. One felt ghostly traces of loves and losses slowly emerging, becoming full-bodied again, perhaps asserting themselves against one’s will, playing out wounds or longings time has failed to dull. It was a truly remarkable experience.

The program closed with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major (Op. 110). The first movement, marked both “con amibilità” and “sanft,” was colored by the Janácek: it felt ephemeral, nostalgic for something very distant.  And it was here that Anderszewski’s astonishing dynamic control was used to greatest effect. One almost held one’s breath to listen to those exquisite quadruple-pianissimos… the dialogue between performer and audience felt, paradoxically, very intimate.  I remember noticing that I didn’t notice when he pressed the keys — I simply became aware that the notes had changed. The finale, alternating between the operatic arioso and the fugal subject, was achingly beautiful and also (I think) tied to the Janácek. Last night I looked at the score and realized not only that the fugue is a variation on the gentle theme of the first movement (I’ve never listened carefully to this sonata before) but that the music is marked “perdendo le forze, dolento/ ermattet klagend” at the second presentation of the arioso, then “poi a poi di nuovo vivente/ nach und nach wieder auflebend” when the fugue returns, inverted.  My hunch is that Anderszewski was playing with the musical expression of remembering and longing (and their mutual influence) throughout the program, so the relation between the pieces was not musical but emotional.

Three encores finished the evening. The first I didn’t recognize, but it sounded like Bartok; the second was Bach (a prelude from one of the English Suites, and as wonderful as the partita); the third was the slow movement from Mozart’s C minor sonata.  Perhaps all that concentration and breath-holding had tired me (or Anderszewski) out, but I found the Mozart more wispy than dreamy and it seemed to lack the emotional richness of the other performances.

In sum, there’s a tremendous intelligence and sensitivity at work in this pianist, and it goes entirely into the music— no ego.  No virtuoso showpieces for the encores, and Anderszewski tends to make you forget how difficult the music is, rather than make you marvel at his technique. (Which is, in fact, a marvelous trick.)  Even his posture at the piano is relaxed and still. In any case, he’s definitely a pianist worth looking out for.  Few performers sculpt a program with such care to show links between pieces; Murray Perahia is the only pianist I have heard in recent years to do this with any regularity.  It will be interesting to see, when this recital comes out on cd, whether a recording is able to capture the emotional impact of the recital.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is the auto industry crisis due to overpaying auto workers?

The NY Times ran an Op-Ed piece today that astonished me in its blinkered view of the GM crisis.  (One Roadblock too Many for GM.)

Mr. Holstein's bias is evident in the second paragraph when he says "While not every decision Mr. Wagoner has made was wise, over all he had been putting G.M. through a wrenching restructuring that tried to undo decades of management acquiescence to the United Auto Workers." He then applauds the decision to pay new workers only $15/hour. Let's think about this a minute. Wagoner walks away with $42 million. I don't know how much his last twenty years' salary adds up to, but consider an average worker. An average annual salary of $50K over 40 years is only $2 Million total, over an entire lifetime. Worse, this salary is, for reasons that escape me, subject to a higher income tax than salaries over $500K -- and blue collar workers don't have tax shelters, and may not be able to even take advantage of a simple mortgage deduction if they cannot buy a house. So Wagoner makes over twenty times as much just for being asked to resign as a guy or gal making $50k/year earns over a lifetime of hard work.

While we're on the topic of hard work, let me bring in another op-ed piece published last week, the letter of resignation from an AIG employee to the CEO Edward Liddy. (Dear AIG, I Quit! NYTimes Mar 24, 2009) Three times the writer, Jake DeSantis, mentions "hard work": for example, he says, "I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom..." It was also hard work that led him to MIT and enabled him to "fulfill the American Dream." The assumption is that hard work invariably =good (or great!) pay. I don't doubt the author works hard during his 12-14 hour days. But I also do not doubt that professional auto workers, schoolteachers, janitors, nurses or construction workers work equally hard. Yet they earn averages of $16,000-80,000/year across the country, with no prospect of a bonus.

Mr. DeSantis feels cheated that AIG reneged on its contract to offer bonuses. But why are financial company's contracts considered sacrosanct, while contracts with regular folk are always up for renegotiation? Union workers are always having to renegotiate contracts. And just about everyone at one time or another has been offered a "fixed" interest rate contract with a credit card company, only to have them change the interest rate a few years later without asking permission.

Back to Mr. Holstein's complaint that union employees drove GM into the financial gutter. Let's imagine that 10,000 workers are getting paid $10 too much an hour. That's $400/week, $20,800/yr per worker - about $208M/year for all 10,000, or $570,000 per day. Yet GM has been losing 11 billion dollars a year -- almost $30 Million per DAY. So the worker "overpayment" in this case would amount to 0.0000518, well less than .01 percent, of the daily losses. Mr. Holstein's argument doesn't hold water.

The only real question is why the Obama administration is not being equally tough on the financial sector.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bias or Confirmation?

I was both amused and exasperated by an article in the NY Times today about a study indicating "bias" on the part of the American Bar Association (ABA) in their ratings of Supreme Court nominees (Legal Group's Neutrality is Challenged).  Essentially, a series of studies (the most recent by Amy Steigerwalt at the University of Georgia -- no indications what her political leanings are) concluded that liberal nominees do better in the process than conservative ones.  John Ashcroft cited such a study to explain why the Bush administration didn't cooperate with the ABA.

The ABA says their ratings are based on "professional competence, integrity, and judicial temperament."  Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all received the ABA's highest ratings.

"But," continues the article,  "Justice Clarence Thomas was given a split rating of 'qualified' and 'not qualified.'  Judge Robert H. Bork, whose nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1987, received a curious split decision, with the majority calling him 'well qualified' but four members saying he was 'unqualified.'"

Hmm.  Does any informed observer really think Clarence Thomas was a good nominee or has served any meaningful role on the Supreme Court? (He's written fewer opinions than any other justice, by an order of magnitude.) Or that we'd be better off if the Senate had confirmed Robert Bork? (Egads!)  Rather than indicating bias, is it not possible that this study confirms that certain administrations have less interest in qualified justices with competence, integrity and even-handedness in judicial temperament?

Where do journalists (and, apparently, political scientists) get the idea that unbiased means everything working out equally for two sides?  By those lights, the last election was biased because Obama won handily.  It couldn't have had anything to do with his qualifications, integrity or temperament...

If the ABA cannot find it in their collective heart to grant the highest ratings to men like Thomas and Bork, well, that is merely proof of their professional competence and integrity. Keep up the good work, folks.

Monday, February 9, 2009

There's a tapeworm in the system

First, a brief update on the proposed tax cuts and why I'm so apopleptic about them. The current version of the bill before the Senate is split nearly 50-50 between tax cuts and stimulus spending.  Is this the best the Democrats could do?  Tax cuts simply, unequivocally do not yield the same return as federal spending. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's—hardly a liberal site—calculates that permanent tax cuts bring only about 30 to 40 cents on the dollar back into the economy (people tend to hoard tax savings or use it to pay off debt, which is not stimulative), whereas spending on things like unemployment insurance benefits or investing in infrastructure yields a return of $1.50-1.73 for each dollar spent. Don't we usually prefer a larger return on our investments and seek to avoid outright losses?

Even more frightening is the little-publicized character of the tax cuts being promulgated: the Republicans want to make Bush-era tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest 1% permanent.

But the most egregious political failure right now is the inability of the Obama administration to tie the money given (and about to be given) to the banks to regulations with real teeth. Capping salaries at $500K is almost beside the point--although it goes toward satisfying populist schadenfreude, it just doesn't have anything to do with how the financial system actually operates and therefore does nothing to address the real problem.  Attorney James Lieber gets to the origins of this mess in The Village Voice. In "What Cooked the World's Economy?" he relates hedge funds to their 19th century precursors, the "bucket shops":
Also sometimes known as "boiler rooms," bucket shops emerged after the Civil War. Usually, they were storefronts where people came to bet on stocks without owning them. Unlike their customers, the shops actually owned blocks of stock. If customers were betting that a stock would go up, the shops would sell it and the price would plunge; if bettors were bearish, the shops would buy.  In this way, they cleaned out their customers. Frenetic bucket-shop activity caused the Panic of 1907. By 1909, New York had banned bucket shops, and every other state followed.

In the mid-90's, though, the credit-derivatives industry was hitting its stride and argued vehemently for exclusion from all state and federal anti-bucket-shop regulations. On the side of the industry were Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and his deputy Lawrence Summers.  Holding the fort for the regulators was Brooksley Born, who headed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The three financial titans ridiculed the virtually unknown and cloutless, but brilliant and prophetic Born, who warned that unrestricted derivatives trading would "threaten our regulated markets, or indeed, our economy, without any federal agency knowing about it." Warren Buffet also weighed in against deregulation.

But Congress loved Greenspan - a/k/a/ "the Maestro" and "the Oracle" - and Clinton loved Rubin. The sleepy hearings received almost no public attention. The upshot was that Congress removed oversight of derivatives from the CFTC and preempted all state anti-bucket-shop laws.  Born resigned shortly afterward.   
Now we see why the choice of Rubin and Summers for Obama's team is so, well, wrong.  There is a tapeworm in our economy that has been draining the system for decades, and it is the unregulated rapacious greed of financiers—but our chief economic advisors are on the side of the worm. 

Tapeworms are furtive creatures whose presence can go undetected for years. They exist by diverting a large portion of the host's diet to their own belly. (Think credit derivatives.) As the tapeworm grows in size it demands more and more of the host; no matter how much the host organism eats, it cannot gain weight.  If the parasite is evolutionarily clever, it will tamp down its greed and coexist relatively peacefully with the host.  But our worm got cocky and let its greed run roughshod over us (all those junk mortgages).  Eventually the worm's energy demands are so great that the host begins to sicken and lose weight. We are that sick host. Simply pumping money into the banks will not work—it's merely feeding the implacable worm. The problem must be addressed at its root, and that means strict oversight and new laws to rein in rampant greed. 

Sorry, did I say 'new' laws? Heck, even the old ones will do.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Against tax cuts: the NYC example

The New York Times editorial board got it right today, in "Getting Tough in Washington:" Obama must be much more aggressive in defending the stimulus plan. At times, his desire for bipartisanship has seemed to be more an end than a means. But we are in no position to wait for the farthest-right Republican ideologues to step on the road to Damascus.  New York City, where I’ve lived for the past six years, provides a case study in the failure of tax cuts directed toward the wealthy to accomplish lasting good.  If supply-side economics was to work anywhere, it should have worked in the city boasting some of the deepest pockets in the world, right?

It didn’t. The NYC budget report released from Mayor Bloomberg’s office on January 30, 2009 unwittingly offers proof that tax cuts do significant damage over the long term to infrastructure and public services—the very areas that, not surprisingly, most need our investment now. The report read in part: “Wall Street firms are expected to lose a total of $47.2 billion in 2008 and further losses are expected in 2009. Those losses can be carried forward, potentially exempting those firms from paying business taxes for potentially [sic] years to come.”  The report then details all the areas our Mayor is cutting back: the numbers of policemen and firemen (job losses), children’s services (child welfare positions, “low priority” child care services and foster care), senior center funding, parks, and libraries. (As if the publishing business isn’t hurting enough already— now people who can’t afford to buy books won’t be able to read them in public libraries, either). These cuts amount to $142M, a small percentage of the revenue that would be brought in annually if not for the tax cuts that have relieved corporations and the extremely wealthy of their civic duty for the past few decades.

Not convinced? Here is recent news from the Manhattan Transit Authority: “The MTA is facing 2009, a projected US$1.2 billion shortfall... The deficit was caused by fallen revenues from real estate and corporate taxes.” Meanwhile, MTA services are being cut, trains are packed beyond capacity, infrastructure repairs are delayed, and the fourth busiest subway system in the world is increasingly prone to flooding from ordinary rainfalls. As the bridges in Minneapolis, the levees in New Orleans, and the report of the American Society of Civil Engineers indicate, we are hardly alone in our decrepitude. But the worst of it is that the consequences of the spending cuts on our services and infrastructure disproportionately (and sometimes exclusively) affect the middle class and the poor, and not just through job losses. Civic goods such as schools and hospitals, parks and libraries, subways and potable water are preconditions for civic life. Without them, we destroy communities, and the very possibility of community. 

Civic goods cannot, and should not, depend on cause-specific philanthropy to thrive.  What billionaire really wants his name plastered across the entrance to a sewage treatment plant? The fact is, there are some things that only governments can do well.  Opposition to the stimulus package is not economic but political: it stands for a theory of government that has been derided for so long that the public (and, apparently, some Democrats) need to be re-educated. President Obama should play to his strengths: he needs to proclaim his philosophy of good government to the public in the same inspiring way he spoke of race. Then he needs to look over the 2008 budget, figure out how much federal support went to the red states, face those Republican ideologues who maintain they don’t want government handouts and say:

Okay.  Then give it back.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Related articles from The New York Times, Friday Feb 6, 2009:

A terrific piece by the Netflix CEO: "Please Raise My Taxes"
Paul Krugman: "On the Edge"

A Modest Proposal for the Obama Administration

Considering the fact that 36 out of 41 Republican senators just voted to nix the idea of a stimulus package entirely and instead pledged their allegiance to a package that consisted entirely of tax cuts (!), I would like to make a modest proposal to President Obama. Actually, there are two versions. He can pick whichever he likes best.

The Obama Administration needs to craft a stimulus package that will actually stand a chance of halting our economic free-fall, go directly to the people with a half-hour speech/econ 101 lesson—Paul Krugman could be his TA—and say, “This is what we believe is our best chance for survival. We gave Republican ideology a go, and it turns out that prosperity does not, in fact, trickle down. The evidence is in: tax cuts for the wealthy, rampant de-regulation, and eviscerated government programs have produced misery on a global scale. [Points to scary graphs in Nobel Laureate’s hands.] So let us experiment. We in this Administration are willing to put ourselves on the line for a progressive agenda. If we fail, you can vote for a different approach in four years.” Along with this, the Democrats would stop yielding ground to the Republicans over this economic plan, and those quivering souls who are doubting the idea of stimulus spending would get a grip and remember November 4th: the public voted for a progressive economic philosophy, so the Dems can always blame their constituents if things go bad.

Alternatively, the Administration could say that all the states that went blue in this last election get full stimulus-package treatment—investment in infrastructure, child healthcare, unemployment insurance, library subsidies, education programs, you name it— while those states that were solidly red (or who elected hard-right Republicans like John Boehner) can continue experimenting with their tax cuts and shrinking government programs. In four years, we’ll re-evaluate which states have fared better and are overall happier, wealthier, smarter, closer to achieving eudaimonia (human fulfillment). This plan has two distinct advantages: 1) if 21 states didn’t receive federal funding, more could go to the rest of us, and 2) it combines a certain libertarian, laissez-faire, we-won’t-force-you-to-pass-Econ-101-if-you-don’t-want-to coolness with that Republican you-made-your-bed-now-you-must-lie-in-it attitude toward personal responsibility. (I’m sure Phil Gramm, for example, would love to be able to boast that Texas didn’t take any government handouts.) If the Republicans are ideologically consistent, they should love this idea.

Hmmm. The more I think about it, the more I favor Option #2…

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Russell Platt of The New Yorker holds quite a different view...

I couldn't resist checking what The New Yorker had to say about the inauguration. I was surprised (and a little dismayed) to find that someone else, namely music critic Russell Platt, had thought to comment on John Williams' composition. (I'd thought I was being original!) But Mr. Platt felt the quartet wasn't up to snuff. Clearly, we have a difference of opinion. The New Yorker doesn't provide a mechanism for posting responses to blogs, but anyone itching to voice their thoughts may do so here.

For your convenience, below is Mr. Platt's blog post:


Let me say that the Classical Music Desk at Goings On is thrilled—truly—that classical music has been given such a prominent spot at the Inauguration, in the form of “Air and Simple Gifts,” a freshly written work by John Williams, performed by an all-star quartet (Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero). The President—we can say that now—is obviously a cultivated person, and, indeed, I’ve heard from a good source that he likes classical music. Could concerts return to the White House?

I only wish that the “new music” had been a bit more, well, new. I know I shouldn’t gripe, but on re-hearing the piece on YouTube, my reaction was the same as the first time: John Williams, the richest symphonic composer in history, has once more confirmed his place as the best second-rate composer in America.

I come to praise Williams, not to bury him. He is the only full-time film composer who can rank with the mid-century greats (Hermann, Waxman, et. al.), but his greatest strength has always been his superversatility, the way he can bring absolute artistic commitment to someone else’s style: the Korngold-like swagger and boyish thrill of the original “Star Wars” movie (not to mention the Holst and Stravinsky “steals”), the roiling Wagnerian cauldron (with leitmotifs!) of the last one, the divinely inspired Mancini-makeover that was “Catch Me If You Can,” or the elegantly Duchinesque ballroom jazz of “Sabrina.”

John Adams, responding to the catastrophe of 9/11, wrote a masterpiece, “On the Transmigration of Souls”; Williams, responding to a request for a Presidential entr’acte from Mr. Obama, made a touching little tribute to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Sure, it’s a response to a different kind of assignment. But it could have been more.

FOLLOW-UP (January 23, 2009): I'm happy to report that Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote a favorable review of Williams' composition, and heard the music much the way I did. Read the Tommasini essay here.  Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker and author of The Rest is Noise, has a lively musical blog in which he, too, commented on the Williams piece (scroll down the page to "Inauguration"). He liked it overall, but for different (and, I might say, less musical) reasons.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Air and Simple Gifts: Five minutes that capture the spirit of this historic inauguration

Throughout the day there has been much commentary on this marvelous, inspiring inauguration. But there is one element that has not received much attention, despite its near-perfect embodiment of this moment in our nation’s history: the quartet "Air and Simple Gifts" by John Williams.

Two measures of simple, hymn-like chords on the piano and the most resonant register of the cello open the quartet. The violin enters with the first melody, a lyrical, soulful line of spacious intervals that wander down the scale only to arch upward again in a plaintive query, searching for a place to rest. The theme is passed to the cello and the piano provides support; the violin joins in again. The mood is one of loss and longing, but as the cello holds one beautiful high A, the clarinet brings forth the second melody, like sunlight breaking through clouds after a storm: a quote from Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, which in turn is a quote from a Shaker melody called Simple Gifts. This more contained, classically ordered sequence of notes at first wafts upward like a tentative yet hopeful question. But then it asserts itself a second time, with more confidence; by the third declaration, it has conviction ("Yes, we can.") The piano and cello then launch a section of bustling, intertwining lines and rhythms: there’s work to be done to bring to fruition the aspiration just expressed. The instruments join together in a new key, building complex harmonies and variations on the main theme, entering a brief, determined march-like stretch as one passes the melody to another. The final section is signaled by the return of stately, chorale-like chords. The mood sobers again as the instruments thoughtfully explore gentle dissonances; the first melody briefly reappears, then a reprise of the first two hymn-like measures closes the piece like an Amen. The symmetry contains the chaos and resolves it.

It's remarkable: in just five minutes, John Williams manages to express American yearning, doubt, and the rebirth of hope, determination, and reconciliation. In this, he is truly an heir to Copland. The musical quotation of the Quaker melody via Copland’s Appalachian Spring is brilliant: Martha Graham commissioned Copland to write this music for her new ballet (of the same title), whose story she set in Pennsylvania before and during the Civil War. Composed in 1944, Appalachian Spring offers an idealized image of America as emerging from an era of internecine strife full of earnest, simple piety. I can’t think of a more appropriate musical reference to mark the inauguration of America’s first African-American president. That the quartet captures the tenor of his leadership as well—reflective, sober, hopeful, and humble—makes it even more apt. Thank you, Mr. Williams.

* * * * * * *
Best video clip of the performance on YouTube:  Quartet: Air and Simple Gifts, composed and arranged for this occasion by John Williams. Performed by Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Gabriela Montera (piano), and Anthony McGill (Clarinet).