Russell Platt, Terry Teachout, and Anne Midgette all take a dim view of Air and Simple Gifts, John Williams's musical contribution to the Obama inauguration. Indeed, it's no Quartet for the End of Time. But I liked several things about the work and its place in the ceremony. 1) The quiet, almost bittersweet ending — a welcome change from the grimly bombastic Williams film music that marred Obama's victory speech in November. 2) The gesture of homage toward Aaron Copland, whose Lincoln Portrait was pulled from an Eisenhower inaugural event in 1953 at the insistence of a Red-baiting congressman. 3) The look of delight on the face of the president — a title he officially acquired while the music was playing, at the stroke of noon. I'm not sure that any president since Jimmy Carter has exhibited such obvious interest in the neighborhood of classical music. (When I was a kid, I met President Carter at a Suzuki violin recital in which his daughter, Amy, was participating. The president offered me a brownie.) Like many people, I'm hoping that the Obama administration will support classical music and the arts, although, in this climate, not much is likely to happen, and – as I mention in The Rest Is Noise — art and politics have never mixed well on American soil. Anyone who favors a "Secretary of Culture" ought to read up on the political firestorm that consumed the WPA arts projects in the late 1930s. But symbolic gestures — recitals at the White House, attendance at concerts, and so forth — can send a strong signal. A great detail emerges from Anne's review: Abraham Lincoln regularly went to the opera and had Flotow's Martha staged on the occasion of his second inauguration. 4) I liked most of all the diverse picture of the classical world that the performers presented: an Israeli-born violinist, a Chinese-American cellist, a Venezuelan-born pianist, and an African-American clarinetist from the South Side of Chicago. "Maybe people noticed that it wasn't old white guys up there," Marc Geelhoed wrote to me.
Update: More from Mark Swed, Tony Tommasini, and Carl Wilson, who points out commentators' sad but unsurprising failure to understand the significance of Aretha Franklin singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (see my post below). As John Gibbons notes, Queen Latifah did acknowledge Marian Anderson's 1939 concert during the pre-inaugural event on Sunday. I watched on C-SPAN, knowing that the network and cable pundits would start talking during the music.