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Inaugural premiere resonates with Copland

Just before the new president was sworn in today, four very cold musicians -- violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, pianist Gabriela Montero -- offered the premiere of Air and Simple Gifts, composed for the occasion by John Williams. I can't vouch for how it sounded to the folks on the inaugural platform, or what kind of effect it had on the massive throngs stretching all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, or what sort of effect it made -- it couldn't have been easy for four little instruments to make a major statement under those circumstances. To tell the truth, I wondered for a bit if there was some play-syncing going on; the quartet recorded the music over the weekend as a backup, and the sound didn't seem entirely natural to me at the start. Still, on TV, the new work proved to be a reflective interlude ripe with resonances.

The "air" at the start of the roughly four-minute piece strikes a sober note, as if to recall the many challenges facing the country. The soft, slow, rather bittersweet theme, begun by the violin and soon picked up cello and piano, gives way to another, very familiar melody from the clarinet -- the gently uplifting Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts," which was used so indelibly by Aaron Copland in his 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring. Williams quotes that passage almost verbatim, and goes on to put the hymn tune through a very Coplandesque treatment before bringing the mood back down to earth with the opening material.

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Although Williams chose to use the Copland material because President Obama counts that composer among his classical favorites, there's another significant point here. In 1953, a pre-inaugural concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall, a concert attended by then president-elect Eisenhower, was to have included a performance of one of Copland's most popular works, A Lincoln Portrait. But a Republican congressman (from Illinois, by the way) objected, suggesting that Copland was too liberal and maybe even Communist-friendly, so the piece was pulled from the concert. Inserting the touch of Copland into the Obama inauguration, Williams told Variety last week, offers "a completed circle of events that is nice to think about."

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