Classical Music Takes Center Stage at the White House
24 November 2009 | Eugene Boyko
Wednesday was classical music day at the White House. The festivities and performances were sponsored by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, created by executive order in 1982. The first lady serves as honorary chairwoman of the committee, and Michelle Obama, fully embracing that function, has created a White House Music Series.
Earlier daylong programs celebrated jazz, country music and Latin music. Classical music had its turn on Wednesday. The celebration ended with a concert in the East Room with President and Mrs. Obama as hosts, and featuring performances by four acclaimed American musicians: the violinist Joshua Bell, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, the guitarist Sharon Isbin and the pianist Awadagin Pratt.
Mr. Obama opened the concert with welcoming remarks, sketching the history of classical programs in the East Room, which go back 120 years. Not afraid to show himself a bit of a classical music novice, he counseled those who did not know where to applaud not to worry, but added: «I have Michelle to help me. The rest of you are on your own».
The program was a sampler, ending with the finale of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio, but substantive. It included Mr. Pratt’s herculean transcription of Bach’s organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and Ms. Weilerstein’s volatile account of the final movement of Kodaly’s Sonata for Solo Cello.
An event of special meaning took place in the afternoon, when Mrs. Obama welcomed a group of some 120 students from community music schools across the country to a workshop. The four guest artists played for the students and also played with several of them, having worked with them in private morning sessions at the White House.
If Sujari Britt, a perky 8-year-old cellist who studies at the Manhattan School of Music, was nervous about playing a Boccherini duo for two cellos with Ms. Weilerstein in the East Room as Mrs. Obama looked on from the front row, she did not show it. She played the genial melody with mature sound and shapely phrasing and, when the roles switched, nimbly dispatched the undulant accompanimental figure.
Ms. Weilerstein also played «The Swan», the familiar Saint-Saëns cello piece, in an arrangement for cello and marimba. Here she was joined by a lanky, shaggy-haired 16-year-old percussionist, Jason Yoder, a junior in the music department at the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh, who played gently flowing accompanimental patterns as Ms. Weilerstein brought plush beauty to the yearning melody. Both of the performances with the young musicians were repeated at the evening concert to standing ovations.
Mr. Bell, who had worked with a group of young violinists in the morning, gave them an inadvertent and useful lesson that any performer, no matter how accomplished, can get into a jam. Playing a lyrical Cantabile by Paganini for violin and guitar with Ms. Isbin, he mistakenly jumped ahead near the end of the piece, then stopped. «I’ve taken a wrong turn», he said. He had skipped a couple of phrases, he explained. So he and Ms. Isbin simply ended the piece a little early.
Mr. Bell’s self-effacing demeanor seemed to delight his young listeners as much as his brilliant account of a splashy piece by Vieuxtemps, a virtuosic fantasy on «Yankee Doodle».
The day had begun in the State Dining Room with Mrs. Obama honoring the winners of the committee’s Coming Up Taller Award, given to successful programs across the country intended to reach students who have insufficient opportunities to explore the arts. Awards were also given to arts programs in the committee’s partner nations, Mexico, Egypt and China.
The name of the award evokes the pride that students feel when given the chance to find their voices through the arts, Mrs. Obama said. She praised the teachers and mentors of these influential programs, who show young people not just «the power of their imaginations» but «the power of discipline and hard word and of teamwork as well».
She spoke movingly of children who grow up in major cities where arts institutions thrive yet feel that those resources might as well be miles away. The arts and music have a place not just in our museums, theaters and concert halls, she said, but in “the halls of this White House.” She wants the White House to be a showcase for the arts, she added.
Asked after the workshop whether the Obamas’ gesture in celebrating classical music at the White House will help demystify the art form and bring it needed attention, Ms. Weilerstein said, “If that doesn’t do it, I don’t know what does».