The Obamas’ classical soirée

Obama greets young musicians(credit: Rick McKay/White House photo office)Obama greets young musicians(credit: Rick McKay/White House photo office)

Classical music has long had a place in various White House administrations. Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Casals were invited by the Kennedys; Van Cliburn has performed for every American president from Harry Truman to George W Bush. But on November 4, it felt entirely as if a new era for the performing arts had arrived in Washington, DC, when President and Mrs Obama hosted more than 150 middle and high school players from all over the US, as well as master artists, at the White House for an official afternoon and evening dedicated to classical music.

The late morning was given over to workshops and masterclasses (not open to the press) given by four professional musicians. Violinist Joshua Bell, guitarist Sharon Isbin, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Awadagin Pratt all performed and taught student workshops. In the early afternoon in the State Dining Room, Mrs Obama hosted the annual Coming Up Taller Awards, which since 1998 has presented prizes to outstanding after-school arts and humanities programmes across the country.

Afterwards, she and the press corps zipped down the White House’s pristine hall to the East Room to hear some of the students, along with their four professional mentors, show off what they had learnt. In the evening, the President joined the festivities for a culminating concert.

Mrs Obama’s words for the educators at the afternoon ceremony reflected some of the realities of our time. “What you do isn’t easy,” she said, “and we know that, particularly right now during these days of a lot of belt-tightening. Many of you have been putting in probably longer hours and later nights just to keep things together and sometimes paying out of your own pockets to keep everything going. But I also know the difference that you’re making in the lives of young people all across this country and around the world.” She and the other speakers from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities presenting the awards stressed the direct impact that arts education makes on overall school achievement. One impressive example cited at the event was the Latino Arts Strings Program in Milwaukee, a 2008 award-winner, where the typical reading GPA (grade point average) among fifth-grade participants rose from 2.81 to 3.45 over two years.

The First Lady made special acknowledgement of similar difficulties from the young musicians’ perspective when she addressed the masterclass students directly later in the afternoon. “I know that what you’re doing doesn’t always feel easy,” Mrs Obama said feelingly. “I know how hard you all work and practising even when you don’t feel like it sometimes, right? And lugging heavy instruments around when you don’t feel like it, pushing yourselves to learn new pieces, or getting that last measure just right. Many of you are perfectionists and it takes a lot of energy and time and it’s not always easy.

“But I can tell you this. It’s through that kind of struggle, whether it’s through an instrument or writing or research, it’s through that struggle that you find what you truly have to offer to your instrument, or to anything in life. And you won’t just learn about rhythm and melody and pitch when you’re working with your instruments; you’re going to learn about discipline and determination and taking risks.”

President Obama’s words were equally soaring. “This is, of course, a unique concert venue,” he remarked, referring to the historic East Room in which the recital took place, whose yellow drapes and warmly glinting chandeliers are famous to generations of Americans as the place from which the sitting President usually gives his televised addresses.

“But tonight, all across America, in community centres and concert halls, in homes and in schools, the sounds of classical music are lifting hearts and spurring imagination, just as they always have. And it’s easy to understand why. There’s precision, of course; but there’s also great feeling and improvisation.

“There’s structure; but there’s also creativity. It’s music that defies simple definition even as it speaks to a common, universal language.”

These were all very true and wise words from President and Mrs Obama. Nevertheless, it was hard to shake off the feeling that the President, the First Lady and their respective staffs – even as they were welcoming classical musicians young and old into their midst – consider classical music a museum culture, something of the past.

“Many of the beautiful concertos and sonatas you’re playing today,” said the First Lady, “were written hundreds of years ago, long before CDs and computers and MP3 players were ever invented. The only reason we know what they sound like is because the great composers of history scratched those notes into parchment with quill pens.”

Parchment? Quill pens? Is this what classical music is in 2009 to the mainstream – a museum-ready, high-culture oddity? The players and few critics in attendance were obviously ebullient that “our” music had received the Obama imprimatur, even for one day (the White House promises that this will not be the last classical music-geared event during this administration).

But there was also an unmistakeable whiff of self-congratulation: that at long last, at least here was a White House that Got It, even if the musicians didn’t do anything in particular to sell this particular art form. In fact, it’s rather hard not to think of the stark contrast between this event and the corresponding White House jazz day, which featured the Marsalis clan – Ellis, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason – all of whom know precisely how to make jazz appealing to a broad audience.

As famously erudite and globally cultured as he is, President Obama made no secret that classical music isn’t part of his regular purview. In his remarks before the concert began, he admitted that, while President Kennedy relied on his social secretary to let him know when it was appropriate to clap at classical performances, “I have to rely on Michelle.” A knowing laugh broke out among the audience, whose members included Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, actors Ed Norton and Kerry Washington and White House senior advisor David Axelrod.

Even so, the Obamas were extremely gracious and engaged hosts. Lined up in the front row at the evening event, alongside their parents and maternal grandmother, were the Obama girls, Malia and Sasha. Meanwhile, President Obama was the very first audience member to leap to his feet after performances by eight-year-old cellist Sujari Britt, who played a Boccherini duet with Alisa Weilerstein, and the 16-year-old marimba-player Josh Yoder, who transformed Saint-Saëns’s The Swan into a duet arrangement, also with Weilerstein.

For even the pros, the star power and credibility that the Obamas give to the classical music is not to be taken lightly. “If the Obamas giving their stamp of approval to this music doesn’t make it cool,” said a radiant Weilerstein post-performance, “I don’t know what will.”

What it would have meant, then, to have one of the more relaxed and socially at-ease professional performers to have said something, however briefly, about how the rituals surrounding classical music matter far less than the music itself, or why they each had alighted to this form. Or why, for example, classical music – whether written 250 years ago, 100 years ago or last week – should have a place at the table. Or why this genre is not just a curiosity but is still a living, breathing and vital part of our cultural fabric.

In the event, the star performers did precious little to disabuse the audience of their discomfort with classical music, or to explain why this music, written in whatever era, might be relevant today. There was some talk of personal passion, and there were some impassioned performances, but there was nothing that created a coherent whole or vision for how to re-weave classical music back more fully into the fabric of contemporary American life.

The music should speak for itself, of course. But perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing to guide the conversation along in some gentle fashion in the future.

Then again, that might be a rather difficult argument to make when not a single one of the invited soloists chose to perform a piece of American music in front of President Obama. The programme was chock-full of selections from Old Europe: Albéniz to Bach, Paganini to Ravel. At the afternoon performance, Weilerstein did manage to slip in a short solo work by Osvaldo Golijov, who settled in the US in 1986, while Joshua Bell slipped in a Vieuxtemps lollipop of variations on “Yankee Doodle”. Granted, there were certain logistical limitations involved, from instrumentation to space and time (and no multi-movement works were performed).

Nevertheless, taking all this into account, how could it possibly be the case that in late 2009 we as Americans are still so indebted to European tradition that we cannot fathom celebrating our own music in our own “people’s house”?

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