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January 4, 2013

Inaugural music: It's nice, but it's not a concert

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Whether Obama will include music at his second inauguration, later this month, remains a matter of conjecture, but of course it's beside the point. State ceremonies at once exalt and diminish music. They offer a framework in which everyone can understand music's importance and desirability (Barber's "Adagio for Strings" at state funerals, Kiri te Kanawa singing "Let the Bright Seraphim" for Prince Charles's wedding to Lady Diana Spencer): It is there to support, embellish, illustrate or prolong the moment, or simply to offer some breathing room. But music in this context is also music at its most utilitarian: It represents art without necessarily being art. I was wrong, in 2009, to try to judge "Air and Simple Gifts" as if it were meant to be concert music; Williams, Ma and Perlman understood their assignment a lot better than I did when I first heard it.

Including music at the inauguration was an example of thinking outside the box: At past inaugurations, instrumental music had generally remained solely in the hands of the U.S. Marine Band, "The President's Own." It also turned out to be a pretty good indicator of the administration's general attitude toward the arts: at once extremely important and a little apart. Obama has emphasized the importance of the arts in education; he has hosted concerts at the White House devoted to a range of musical genres. But he is — certainly in the realm of classical music — an appreciator rather than a devotee. He very much wants to have the arts around; but for him personally — as for many, many American citizens — they are a pleasant adornment rather than an object of passion. He didn't have a favorite piece he particularly wanted played: He wanted something appropriate, and symbolic.

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