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Williams’ music to Obama’s ears

Ma, Perlman to perform at inauguration

A classical quartet gets the prime spot between the swearing-in of Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and that of President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday. And along the way, a 56-year-old musical injustice will be rectified.

Two of the nation’s most familiar classical artists — cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman — will be joined by Metropolitan Opera clarinetist Anthony McGill and Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero in performing a new piece by composer John Williams.

It’s called “Air and Simple Gifts,” the centerpiece of which will be “an exuberant rendering,” in Williams’ words, of traditional Shaker hymn “The Gift to Be Simple,” which Aaron Copland made famous in his 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.”

Williams surrounds “Simple Gifts,” as the tune is also called, with an original, hymn-like theme. The whole piece will run about 4½ minutes and will be performed live by the quartet (although Williams will supervise a recording of it Sunday in D.C. as an emergency backup in case of inclement weather).

The president-elect asked Perlman and Ma to perform, and they in turn called Williams — a frequent collaborator with both artists — “to help them prepare something to play.” Ma chose the other two performers, Williams told Daily Variety.

Knowing of Obama’s appreciation for Copland, they chose the Shaker hymn, which Williams arranged for this unusual quartet, and then composed “a reflective and prayerful theme” as musical bookends.

Since Ma was in L.A. last week to perform with the Philharmonic, he visited Williams on Saturday to run through the piece. The quartet played it for the first time on Tuesday in New York and will rehearse again and record it with Williams on Sunday. Chamber groups are not usually “conducted,” so Williams will not be seen on Tuesday (although he said he may attend as part of the crowd).

In January 1953, Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” was scheduled to be performed at Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural concert but was banned at the last minute when an Illinois congressman complained about Copland’s liberal politics. Later that year, Copland became a target of Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt.

In time, Copland was “completely rehabilitated,” Williams noted, performing at the White House and eventually receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. The performance at this inauguration of “Simple Gifts,” a piece widely associated with Copland, “describes a completed circle of events that is nice to think about,” the composer said.

“We all feel a sense of great privilege to be able to contribute in a very small way, musically, to an event like this,” Williams added. “It’s a great moment in our history.”

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