There are so many striking sounds and images from today’s events in Washington – but for as impressed as I was by Barack Obama’s speech, by the touching and heartfelt benediction, by the gathering of such an impressive array of dignitaries, by the gigantic throng gathered on the Mall, by the beauty and dignity of the ceremony. . . what I found most moving of all was that wonderful John Williams arrangement of “Simple Gifts” played so splendidly by a quartet headlined by Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. As they began playing the haunting introduction, I didn’t hear so much as a hint of that beloved melody. . . all I heard was what felt like a poignant recollection of all of the longing and pain that has been experienced in the generations before us – to say nothing of the pain which envelops so much of our country today. And then, at last, the soothing sound of the clarinet – played so beautifully by Chicago’s own Anthony McGill, who is principal clarinetist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra – entered with that wonderful, life-affirming melody. And from there the piece soared in its vibrancy and joy to a climax that had those string players burning through their strings! And from there the piece settled beautifully into a final coda that was like an exquisite sunset. By the end of it I was bawling. There, I admitted it.
And I loved how attentive that immense audience seemed to be – – – I’m sure not every single soul packed onto that crowded mall was as enthralled as I was – – – but I was really relieved at the attentiveness of the audience . . . and I especially loved some camera shots which showed Obama really listening in a way that is quite uncommon in such situations. I have sung at enough ceremonies and attended others to know full well that officials very often treat mid- ceremony musical performances as nothing but a break from the more pressing matters of the moment. This felt different- as though this music was really penetrating the moment and the hearts of those present.
The choice of “Simple Gifts” was powerful because the text comes from the tradition of the Shakers, who were (and are, in their dwindling numbers) a most simple people- and given the ravenous appetite of Americans and their capitalistic empires, to inject these words into the mix is a stroke of sheer genius – and incredible irony.
Tis a gift to be Simple. Tis a gift to be Free.
Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in a place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we sha’nt be ashamed.
To turn . . . turn. . . will be our delight
‘til by turning . . . turning . . . we come ‘round right.
I believe it was at the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan, which was moved indoors because of the extreme cold, that “Simple Gifts” was sung for the ceremony by the queenly Jessye Norman. And although she sang quite beautifully from a technical point of view, I also felt like she sang it with a regality and more than a little artifice very much at odds with what this hymn is all about. . . but I still felt an odd sort of satisfaction that in that Capitol rotunda, with all those dignitaries and Washington insiders gathered around, these beautiful words were part of the proceedings- although one fears that those beautiful words sailed way over the heads of most of the people present. (Forgive my cynicism.)
Today felt so different from that. And long after many other memorable images have faded from my mind, I will remember the sheer joy with which cellist Yo Yo Ma played today. . . and the wonderful mix of colors and genders and backgrounds and religions in those four musicians spoke very powerfully about who America is and what matters most in this life on earth.
pictured: Cellist Yo Yo Ma in mid-performance.