Today's inaugural chamber music was full of subtle symbolism, rebuking the mistakes of administrations past.
Many music buffs,
or at least contemporary chamber-music buffs, were surprised when plans
for John Williams' inaugural commission were announced: The ensemble
chosen for the new work, violin, cello, clarinet, and piano, is a
grouping immediately recognizable as the ensemble Olivier Messiaen used
for his Quartet for the End of Time, written in 1940
while he was held in a German stalag, composing for the only four
musicians (including himself on piano) available in the camp.
According to reports, Obama himself invited violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma to perform, and it was Ma who in turn chose pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill to join them. Messiaen's Quartet is the only major work for that particular combo, and it makes one wonder what sort of symbolism the musicians had in mind--we're escaping from an eight-year imprisonment? They must have assumed fellow musicians would think of the Quartet; if not, it'd have been like starting a piece with "da-da-da-DUM!" and expecting people not to think of Beethoven's Fifth.
The somberness of the work's opening--elegiac melodies for solo instruments, not far from the way Messiaen in his Quartet often deployed his players one at a time to deeply poignant effect--gives way to exuberant, energetic string passages churning under the slower strains of the hymn: both a celebration and a reminder. A more obvious symbolism, though, was Williams' choice of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," the same tune Aaron Copland used as the backbone of his ballet Appalachian Spring. The hymn's lyrics--in part, "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come down where we ought to be"--neatly pre-echoed the theme of humility that made such a powerful theme in Obama's address (again, a rebuke to the outgoing administration). The performing lineup, we hope, made an impression on anyone who still thinks classical music is elitist and non-inclusive, all about old white guys: one woman, one African-American, one Asian-American, and one differently-abled Jew. Finally, the tribute to Copland was a welcome redemption for the composer, 56 years after a planned performance of his Lincoln Portrait was stricken from an Eisenhower inaugural celebration concert after one congressman complained about his alleged Communist leanings.