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.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree with you (pace The New Yorker) that the quartet was one of the most perfectly conceived episodes of the entire day. Your piece captures what completely eludes Mr. Platt, namely that Williams's contribution needed to embody the specific emotional and intellectual contours of the moment, not draw attention to itself through "originality" for its own sake. And it did exactly that with admirable restraint, a musical encapsulation of Obama's own character.

    One also has to wonder why the referential gesture of Aretha Franklin's "My Country Tis of Thee" was apparent to even the most casual pop culture critic while Williams's parallel musical device (quoting a well-known piece of Americana for specific symbolic purposes) was uniformly lost on the guardians of high culture. Apparently, when we're dealing with a "touching little tribute," the need to delve further has been absolved.