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.

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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).