Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero recorded the music a couple days before the inauguration as an emergency backup in case of frigid weather. As it turned out, it was too cold for string instruments to function well, so the quartet more or less pretended to play the piece, while that recording was beamed to the throngs at the Capitol and those tuning on radio or TV.
Taking as inspiration the fact that Obama was known to enjoy the music of Aaron Copland, Williams effectively placed the indelible Shaker tune, "Simple Gifts," into the middle of the new piece, conjuring up memories of that hymn's use in Copland's Appalachian Spring. Not everyone was impressed with Williams' work. Some objected to the Copland borrowing, others to the fact that the music lacked an air of pomp and ceremony. But I think the composer, limited to writing something that could only last a few minutes, came up with a sensible solution, one that managed to evocate a whole world of American music in the brief time span. And, with its reflective opening and close, Air and Simple Gifts struck an appropriate note for what are, after all, very sobering times.
It was hard on Jan. 20 to hear the Shaker melody without also thinking of the words that go with it: " 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be." Pretty good advice for Washington, I'd say, any day of the year.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO