The first was provided by Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, whose dynamic, gospel-inflected delivery of "My County, 'tis of Thee" energized the crowd. It also brought to mind legendary contralto Marian Anderson's 1939 performance of that same patriotic hymn under very different circumstances at the Lincoln Memorial on the opposite end of the National Mall, after she was barred from the then-segregated Constitution Hall.
President Barack Obama took the oath of office, a stellar quartet - violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist (and Peabody Conservatory faculty member) Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero - offered the premiere of Air and Simple Gifts, created for the occasion by noted film composer John Williams.
The remarkably intimate interlude opened with a sober, almost melancholy theme, as if to recall the many challenges facing the country. That gave way to a familiar melody, first intoned by the clarinet - the gently uplifting Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts," used so indelibly by Aaron Copland in his 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring. The four instruments rhapsodized on that tune before returning to the quiet opening material.
Williams' use of the Copland reference provides a kind of poetic justice. In 1953, Copland's A Lincoln Portrait was cut from a pre-inaugural concert by the National Symphony Orchestra for Dwight D. Eisenhower after a Republican congressman from Illinois suggested that the popular composer was too liberal and possibly a Communist. Bringing a touch of Copland into the Obama inauguration, Williams told Variety last week, offers "a completed circle of events."
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