by James Hogan
Some of the biggest classical music news last week came–no surprise here–as a result of the Inauguration, which featured a John Williams arrangement of “Simple Gifts” played by renowned musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill. But the buzz was overwhelmed later in the week when the committee in charge of the program revealed that the music spectators and television viewers heard was prerecorded. The cold temperatures, the announcement said, made it too difficult to consider using the live performance.
Any minor controversy regarding musicians lip-synching to music (or in this case, bow, reed, and key-synching) always brings to mind the ill-fated 1980s group, Milli Vanilli. Their meteoric rise to fame, and their hit song, “Blame it on the Rain,” crashed harshly to the ground when they were exposed to have been singing mutely all along.
My take on this–and you’re welcome to disagree with me in the comments section below–is that we’re comparing apples to oranges. There is no doubt that Perlman, Ma, and company are incredible musicians, and their decision to use a prerecorded track in place of a live performance came through common sense, not through any fear that they would bungle their parts. While I’m sure any errors in performing that particular Shaker tune would have eventually been overshadowed by the other noteworthy slip-up in the program, surely no one could blame the musicians for wanting to make it perfect the first time. (Is anyone suggesting that Justice Roberts should use a tape next time?)
Some critics have pointed out that the Marine Band did not use a recording, even though they were exposed to the same temperatures. Marching bands, however, react more favorably to the cold than string ensembles. You can keep a horn warm prior to a performance by blowing hot air through it, so there’s less risk of the group careening out of tune. String instruments–pianos especially–can react with shocking speed to changes in temperature. And no one wanted to spy a piano tuner ducking under the hood of a Steinway while Aretha Franklin was trying to sing.
So blame it on the cold, and celebrate that the unprecedented millions who descended upon our nation’s capital, of so many ages and backgrounds, were able to at least hear a worthwhile bit of classical music.