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Classical music has its White House day

In today's Washington Post: Classical music has its day at the White House, by Anne Midgette.

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Anyone who loves classical music has to be happy to see the White House making an effort to present it. People sitting near the stage at last night's concert said that Barack Obama was really involved in the performances; and he stayed on at the reception afterwards to speak to the artists and guests. This is a good thing. A White House spokeswoman also said this wouldn't be the last classical music event the White House would host: again, a good thing.

The arts writer Judith Dobrzynski, blogging about Michelle Obama's remarks before the afternoon's White House concert, wondered if she were sending the "right message about the value of classical music." Though this comment was really an aside, it made me think a lot about yesterday's classical music event. What exactly is "the right message"? The very phrase reveals the kinds of expectations classical music lovers are holding: give us some respect, fund our institutions, admit our superiority.
(read more after the jump)

I'm not sure the concert itself sent the "right message" about classical music. I would have preferred it to demonstrate more of the precision that President Obama invoked in his opening remarks as one of the virtues classical music has to teach, and a little less flinging about of sound and superficial passion. Yet here's a "right message" it did send: classical music is being played in the White House. And if this is the first of several such events, then it's a respectable start.

One of the highlights of the day for me came before the music program, when the First Lady (radiant and gracious) was handing out "Coming Up Taller" awards to 19 arts and humanities programs for disadvantaged children. Shana Brown, a participant in New York's Shakespeare Remix project, an after-school program that leads students through in-depth analysis and performances of Shakespeare's plays, got up and delivered a beautiful speech about her own growth through the program from fractious teen to college-bound graduate, complete with a luminous reading of one of Emilia's monologues from "Othello." Brown's invocation of her future life after college "as a writer, as a collaborator, and as a citizen" was note-perfect. Here's the "right message" everyone wants.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 5, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , national , news  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: In performance: Susanna Phillips
Next: In performance: Repin at the NSO


Your comment that "classical music is being played in the White House" is the "right message" is right on. The views of classical music as prophylactic, redemptive, therapeutic, redistributive of wealth, salvational, and entitling its practitioners to full employment are tone deaf, if not self-serving, no matter how many ancillary benefits are attributed to music. The only right message is that classical music is enjoyable and, by extension, that being civilized is enjoyable. Having civilized White House incumbents enjoy classical music, and sharing it, is a wonderful message in itself, Especially if there will be more of it.

Posted by: gauthier310 | November 5, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

I think the First Lady's statement about the timelessness of classical music was mostly encouraging. True, her remarks (or at least the excerpt in the link above) may suggest that we need to breathe some life into these musty museum pieces. But, like it or not, that's a pretty widespread perception. The sparse attendance at many of the concerts I've attended recently may be merely a function of the recession, but it has rekindled my years-long angst over the inexorable fading of classical music as an essential ingredient of our cultural mix, abetted by the dearth of classical radio stations, the paucity of selection in the classical CD sections in the shops, and other depressingly familiar trends. So Michelle Obama's words offered some reassurance that changing tastes and market forces need not spell the doom of all we hold dear, and that technological advances can provide something of a lifeline for the classics -- albeit in new formats that may take some getting used to. So, brava, Mrs. Obama. And thanks to our President and First Lady just for being there. By the way, I wanted to ask Anne Midgette: why did you refer to Sharon Isbin as a "guitar player" and the other musicians as pianist, cellist and violinist? This is not meant as a criticism at all; I was just wondering.

Posted by: tedloud | November 5, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Isn't the photo of Fermi the one in which he is chuckling because the equation is incorrect? Perhaps we talk about music to much and listen to it to little.

Posted by: antoniocelaya | November 5, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

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