Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ma, Pearlman, Montero and McGill Play to Tape at Obama Inaugural

I've been following this story since the revelation was made, but this is the best story about it that I've yet read, as the main issues are raised in a balanced manner, and real, actual experts are consulted.

Forget for a moment that the piece was written by John Williams, who "borrowed" much of the music for Simple Gifts wholesale from Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring - one of my favorite pieces of American music (Bordering on Americana by now) - and, given President Obama's background, some type of a jazz piece would have been a far superior choice, many thorny ethical and practical issues are raised for musicians here.

First of all, let me say that I sympathize 110% with the members of the quartet, as I've had to play outside in the cold many times myself. And, truth be told, never at anything anywhere near as cold as circa 20 degrees F. My policy now is, when I'm hired for a gig, if it's going to be below sixty degrees F, I need to be inside, or I'll simply pass on the gig. Of course, I don't have the option to perform to tape, and I'm going to be at it for two to four hours, so even a comparatively balmy 55 degrees will make my hands stiffen up, especially if it's overcast, windy, or I'm in the shade. So, I would have passed on that gig, Presidential Inaugural or no (Yeah, yeah: Fat chance), unless they had me inside somewhere and put me on a screen for the outside festivities... but that's just me... or, is it?

"The revelation that millions of people who saw the inauguration of President Barack Obama were actually listening to recorded music instead of the actual performance of the Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman-led quartet has led to comparisons of lip-synching (though, in this case, might the correct term be hand-synching?) and drawn comparisons to other infamous cases, including Ashlee Simpson's "Saturday Night Live" debacle and perhaps music's most famous pantomimes, Milli Vanilli.

But Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, says she doesn't understand what the fuss is all about.

"I think this is a whole lot of nothin'," she said on Friday. "These are world-class performers who are playing in 19 degree weather and the technical requirements of their instruments made it impossible for them to have their music amplified and know that it would be in tune. So they made, what I think, was probably a difficult decision to play to tape."

Which raises the question, what on earth were they doing outside in 19 degree weather with priceless instruments? And when I say priceless, I mean priceless.

""Yo-Yo has got a Stradivarius cello that's worth ... $2 million or $3 million," he said. "We had snow falling that night, we had 17 degree temperature, we had the wind blowing as high as 20 mph, and that's a very very risky environment in which to play an instrument like that and expect it to sound good. And it's not like someone else played the music, Yo-Yo played the music.""

Okay, I don't think any musical instrument is worth that much, I don't care who made it or when, but that's just a simple function of supply and demand, and evidently there are enough people willing to pay that much for one of old Antonio's fiddles. The article doesn't make clear if Ma was actually playing that particular cello - I'm sure he has many - but if he was, and you buy into the idea that it's a masterpiece cultural relic, wouldn't it be insane-bordering-on-criminal to have it outside in 19 degree weather? Especially if the humidity was low (As I'm pretty sure it was)?

"Kent Webb, manager of technical services and support for the famous Steinway & Sons piano maker, said its instruments are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and the extreme cold would not only have made the instrument out of tune, but would have made the keys susceptible to sticking.

"The playability and the amount of finesse that one can extract from a performance are very compromised," Kent said."

So, not only are the instruments and their tuning in jeopardy, but also their playability, at least in the piano's case, and I'm betting McGill's clarinet was not exactly "happy" either (You have warm, humid breath going through a wooden cylinder that has metal keys attached to the outside: Brilliant!).

Am I the only one thinking this was just a bone-headed silly decision totally devoid of any logical reflection whatsoever? I'm betting not.

So, why then? Well, this is the rationalization, right here.

"A representative for Perlman echoed her comments Friday with the following statement: "Mr. Perlman was deeply honored to be a part of the inauguration ceremony. The brutal cold created the distinct possibility of broken or out of tune instruments and, in order to avoid a weather related issue detracting from the majesty of the day, a decision was reached to play along to the recording that the quartet had made earlier in the week.""

Like I said, the option still existed to play indoors and televise the performance, which would have been the logical and practical solution. Even the organizers of the inaugural recognized this.

"Florman said when Obama made his request for the quartet, because of the delicacy of the instruments and the size of the grand piano, there was some consideration given to having the quartet play at the Capitol and have their performance beamed to the world."

The old axiom goes, "You were right the first time."

No, the real "reason," as unreasonable as it is, was this.

""Everyone agreed that they needed to perform someplace so (Obama) could actually watch the performance," she said. "But obviously the drawback is that they're out in the elements.""

I'm sorry, but this doesn't even survive the most casual logical analysis: The point of a musical performance is to hear it, not to see it. No, they just wanted President Obama to see the quartet perform while hearing a pre-recorded version of the performance. If you are thinking there is an element of falsity and even dishonesty to this, you are right!

They should have played inside and televised a real performance. That's the only truly logical and ethical solution in a situation such as this.

Is it live, or is it Memorex? Yo Ma-Ma! (Sorry, couldn't resist).

Honesty is always the best policy. WTF am I thinking? We're in the realm of politics here.


Blogger Ben Clapton said...

I disagree with this:
"The point of a musical performance is to hear it, not to see it."
If that was the case, would it have not been ok to just play the recording that they made?

No, the point of a musical performance is to both hear AND see it, and in performance, you will do whatever it takes to ensure that the performance goes as smoothly as possibly.

I have absolutely no issues with the fact that they performed to a pre-recorded performance. What many people seem to be forgetting that they were not "Lip-syncing" ala ashlee simpson. People who were close to where the quartet were situated have stated that they could hear them playing. Even if the recording had cut out, they would have kept going and heard them playing. Had it been fine weather, you would have heard them playing.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Claudia said...

Thank you for your article. As a musician, I agree that it was dishonest. The artists should simply have told the President that it could not be done outside. As for him watching them, he saw very little. They were behind his back, and he had to half turn to see them. He didn't do it very much, and only for 1-2 minutes at a time. I know because I wondered why everybody, on the podium, didn't turn to look at the musicians.

I knew it was impossible for them to use their instruments. I thought it was demeaning, for such high caliber musicians, to play act. Specially the look on their faces.....A little bit like simulating the act of love!!! The public should have known... specially for such an important occasion.

I'll always have my doubts, from now on, if a performance, inside or outside, is make believe...I'm simply a second rate pianist. I would never have participated in such a deception, even just to play in minor recitals.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Thanks to both for your input.

The Capitol Rotunda is a gorgeous space with very nice looking views and an incredibly live and reverberant sound (Though, I'd HATE to be the sound engineer in a place like that), and I will continue to stick by my view that they should have performed there, indoors, in comfort, and given the inaugural a real, live performance.

I'm very old fashioned about this, as I refuse even to splice two performances together when I record. Most musicians look at me like I'm insane when I tell them that, but I'd rather capture a good feeling take with a couple of flubs than a perfect one put together from multiple takes. To me, that's the more ethical approach.


11:39 PM  
Blogger Claudia said...

I so totally agree with you. As a Canadian, I'm very proud of the pianist Glenn Gould who recorded faultless performances of Bach. Nevertheless, I didn't like the fact that he renounced public concerts in his thirties. Afterwards, all we received from him were polished renditions, corrected and re-corrected, as he went along.

I still wonder (maybe unfairly), "Where is the soul, in that perfection?"

2:25 PM  

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