Taped inaugural performance doesn't deserve scorn

A few more thoughts on the leftover musical story from Jan. 20.

So, OK, the massive sea of chilled witnesses to the inauguration and the untold millions watching on TV heard a taped performance of John Williams' Air and Simple Gifts, the interlude between the swearing-in of Joe Biden and Barack Obama. People understandably thought they were getting the real thing, especially since violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero did such a fab job pretending to perform the new work. Some folks, also understandably, feel they were had, that this was duplicitous, hardly the kind of transparency they can believe in. Well, get over it.

What were the musicians to do? In sub-freezing temperatures, none of them could have functioned at their best, and the string instruments, in particular, could not have stayed remotely in tune. Once that reality sunk in, inauguration organizers had few options. Cancel the musical portion of the program? That would have left an awkward hole in the program. Have everyone sit there and listen to a four-minute tape? Equally awkward. I think the best choice would have been to do just as they did -- let the musicians play in sync to the recording -- but then, after the whole ceremony was over, inform all the TV networks and news agencies of what had been done to save the event. That disclosure would have stopped all the nonsense flying around about Milli Vanilli and worse.

This was no deliberate, pre-meditated scam. It was surely all about the moment, the appearances, preserving the original intent of the ceremony. What seems to be missed in some of the thoughtless chatter is that the four excellent artists still had to endure the cold, just as if they had been playing full-out, and that they managed such a persuasive effort to let the music make its intended effect. (I have a feeling that those who didn't think much of what Williams wrote are braying the loudest about this would-be scandal.)

To me, what happened on the West Front of the Capitol doesn't come close to fraud. It was an honest attempt to deal with a difficult issue, leading to an unfortunate after-effect caused by a lack of foresight -- those bright folks behind the scenes should have known that this thing could not go undetected. (I was hardly alone in suspecting a recording from the first notes; I just didn't see it as such an important issue that I should raise a hue and cry over it.)

You don't hear anyone complaining that Aretha Franklin sang to a pre-recorded track. I really can't see any reason to complain that those four instrumentalists perched above the presidential contingent gamely did as they were asked to do. They fulfilled their commitment to Williams, the inaugural committee and the masses.

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