Environmental challenges

One of the highlights of Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony was the performance of John Williams’s “Air and Simple Gifts” by musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montero. And since Wednesday, everyone from Anderson Cooper to the New York Times has been reporting the “news” that the beautiful music was pre-recorded.

Surf the Web and YouTube for comments, and you’ll find many comparisons to Ashlee Simpson and Milli Vanilli. Even Anderson Cooper’s headline calls the performance a “fake-out.”

In the coming months, you’ll hear a lot from us about performing in unusual spaces, and the unique challenges they present. High-caliber classical musicians have expanded their horizons to perform at clubs, libraries, hospitals, aquariums, and, in the case of Joshua Bell, the New York subway, all in the effort to bring new audiences into the art form.

As a musician who has performed in weather ranging from 50-100 degrees, I know first hand that weather and temperature can wreak havoc on how a fine instrument responds, not to mention how your own physical body must withstand the challenge. There is a reason why union musicians will not play if the weather is below 60 degrees. Not only is there a significant risk of damage to wood instruments, there is also a great chance that the performance will not reflect the musicians’ high level of artistry.

At 30 degrees, the weather for the Obama inauguration created an impossible environment for these musicians to perform well. The piano would not hold pitch for more than two hours, and any clarinetist will tell you that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to play at pitch when the temperature is that cold.

The music that was played over the speakers and for the broadcast was recorded by the ensemble the day before in a live take. At the event, the musicians did actually perform, so listeners who were within physical earshot did hear them play.

There is no faking here.

The quartet had a very clear choice to make, and they made the most responsible one. Any of us who regularly perform outside the comforts of the concert hall know that there are adjustments that sometimes need to be made to ensure that the audience gets the quality performance they expect and deserve.

This was not a case of sub-par entertainers using someone else’s talents or electronically enhancing their abilities. On a bitterly cold day, with the whole world watching, these top-tier musicians used the help of technology to sound a little more like…themselves.
Fifth House Ensemble

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