No classical musicians at Obama’s ‘celebration of American music’

No classical musicians at Obama’s ‘celebration of American music’


norman lebrecht

October 15, 2015

The White House concert was hosted by Carol Burnett and featured performances by Guy, Usher, James Taylor, Queen Latifah, Smokey Robinson, Esperanza Spalding, MC Lyte, Audra McDonald, Trombone Shorty, Keb’ Mo’ and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

‘An eclectic bunch,’ the president called them. Just not eclectic enough.

Worse, the event marked the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

That’s how far classical music has fallen off the American radar in 50 years. More here.

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  • pooroperaman says:

    Well, if you elect a man like Obama, what do you expect?

    • Will Duffay says:

      What does that mean? (I doubt Bush or Trump or Palin is strong on classical music.)

      • jaypee says:

        It means that pooroperaman watches fox “news” and thinks he’s being clever.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          So, is there any classical music in the Celebration Of American Creativity, or not?

          A Yes/No answer would be just fine.

        • pooroperaman says:

          Nope, never watched it in my life. But I know lowlife when I see it.

          • Alvaro says:

            I also know white racist A-Hole when I see it. But I think in classical music thats actually a good thing?I wonder if you sport a reduced mustache and are fond of Wagner…

      • Mark Morrison says:

        It means that the others that you mentioned, at the very least, pretended that they could appreciated anything other than the lowest common denominator when it came to music. Obama and the lovely (gag me with a spoon) Michelle make any pretense of being able to appreciate more than hip hop. Our first couple are a true embarrassment for a variety of reasons.

        • jaypee says:

          “Our first couple are a true embarrassment for a variety of reasons”

          Only in the mind of the pathetic fox “news” minions.

          • Mark Morrison says:

            No, Jaypee, only in the minds of anyone who thinks for himself. By the way, I did vote for Obama, but his “intelligence” is greatly overrated, especially by all the ashamed-to-be-white, liberal lackeys who dote on every word from this racist, Muslim-leaning (or just Muslim) s0-called leader and his beastly ugly wife.

          • William Safford says:

            To Mark Morrison: “I’m not black, but there’s lots of times when I wish I could say I’m not white.”

            — Frank Zappa, “Trouble Every Day”

            One of those moments for me is when I read messages such as yours.

    • Grace-notes says:

      You’re so right! At least Mitt Romney would have had have organized weekly lieder recitals and poetry readings — you know, the kind of stuff regularly featured on Fox News.

  • Dominique says:

    No place for Gershwin, Copland, Ives, Bernstein, Glass, or at least John Williams with one of his movie soundtracks? Looks like a new definition of eclecticism.

  • Eddie Mars says:

    Says it all, really.

    I wonder… does ‘Shorty Trombone’ play any kind of arrangements of Toby Keith songs, or ‘Duellin’ Banjos’?

    These are the fine musicians to whom the parents of American teens were listening in that recent poll (see Slipped Disk, passim)

  • Anne says:

    “That’s how far classical music has fallen off the American radar in 50 years.”

    Did it fall or was it pushed?

    • B Bailey says:

      The leftwing elite in the States is positively antagonistic to the music of “Dead White European Males.” Teachers refuse to teach Shakespeare and sure as hell aren’t going to teach Beethoven or even Americans like Copland.

      • Holger H. says:

        You are barking up the wrong tree. It is gruesome and fascinating in the same time, to see the US populous from the outside, and how they have veen brainwashed for decades to hallucinate their brother and neighbor to be their enemy, while licking the hand and balls of their corporate masters snd their political executioners.

  • Simon Evnine says:

    At least in his auguration, Obama had Itzhak Perlman and friends miming to a soundtrack.

  • V.Lind says:

    Fifty-some years later, people still talk of the night Casals played at the White House (for the Kennedys). Leonard Bernstein played there. So did many of the other GREAT artists of the day. I doubt this is a concert that will be remembered in half a century. I have heard two of these people, and heard OF two more. Who are the rest?

  • Ekaterina says:

    Why are people even surprised at such things anymore? Yes, it is truly sad, but look at education in that country, look at who can lead in the polls for important elections. Does anybody see any true intelligence, shining brilliance, vision, anything human, noble or suggesting an appreciation for the finer things in life anywhere there? You have to scratch pretty hard to find it and even then, it is most probably struggling to survive, surrounded by ignorance at an unprecedented level in human history. Get over it. Civilisations have always risen and fallen throughout history. Just look at Greece and think for a moment about what it once was and all and what it gave to nearly every civilisation on the planet to this day and then look at and think about what Greece has become today. Then think about the Egyptians, the Romans…Why would or should the United States be any different? The only difference is that now the cycles of rise and fall move so much faster. Whereas ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome thrived and reached their zenith and declined over, in some cases, thousands of years, the rise and fall of the U.S., as a “civilisation” may only encompass a hundred or so years, only to be supplanted by another civilisation waiting their turn…Abandoning deep rooted culture and abandoning deep rooted cultural heritage is the key sign of a declining and falling empire. We still remember and still talk about Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein performing at the White House because those events took place when the United States was at its zenith. We indeed won’t remember the event mentioned above because the cultural power of the civilisation that presented it has waned to the point of insignificance.

  • AZ Opera Fan says:

    Obama has tried classics before, but admitted it’s not to his taste. Nope, he likes juvenile, forgettable “music”. Hip hop, rap and crap like that are his thing. Obama really isn’t a very intelligent guy, or profound thinker. He sets a poor example in most ways I can think of, so why should he be any better in music? He loves to give his opinion on college basketball playoffs, buy he knows nothing of the arts. And besides, who’s he going to bring? A conductor? Most of the heads of American orchestras are not Americans. Everyone is tired of trotting out Gershwin, Bernstein, and company. And whoever brought up Bush and Palin – get over it! They’ve been gone for 7 years. I don’t know what the point of this event is and don’t care, really. But I can think of two guys who absolutely should be invited: composers Parker and Stone who gave us the brilliantly funny and original “Book of Mormon” musical.

  • Eric says:

    Our wonderful pretender-in-chief strikes again……..

    • jaypee says:

      Go back to fox “news”.
      Do you think Trump, Carson or Bush would do any better?

    • Holger H. says:

      It’s not his fault, that the moronic majority of your people are ruled by a corporate elite with a democracy smoke screen. Other presidents before him – and after Lincoln – let that happen

  • V.Lind says:

    John Adams has not been done to death. Marin Allsop may not be the best conductor in the world but she’s good enough and she is a near neighbour of the White House. And of course there is MTT. And there is nothing wrong with the John Williams idea.

    What about all these young Americans at international festivals. some of them winning and placing? How about honouring some of them? Winning teams get invited to the White House.

    He’s just a hip-hop guy, which is fair enough, but he has a public job and some responsibility. Do you imagine the Queen enjoys everyone at the Royal Variety performance? Man up — and grow up. These seem rather immature tastes for a President of the United States.

  • nuggulux says:

    Funny story: This is not about who is president or the decline of civilization, it’s about the simple fact that “Classical music” is not American music. Classical music is a Western European idiom, based on a set of European ideals.

    The performers at this show are performing America’s gift to the world: blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. If there is something to be outraged about, it’s the lack of country, bluegrass, and American string-band music.

    The current administration, which some commenters can’t help but show their disdain for (yawn), have had far more classical music artists perform at the White House than the previous administration (or his father’s administration) ever did.

    I can take my lumps.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      In what way are Cage, Bernstein, Copland, Barber, Reich, Glass, Adams, Riley, not American music?

      • Ravi Narasimhan says:

        Excepting Copland, I walk many miles to avoid the output of the rest of that list.

      • nuggulux says:

        Those composers you mention were/are all working in the language and syntax of Western European classical music tradition. Or, in other words, the acorn has not fallen far from the tree.

        Yes, they made music that is from America, but it is arguably not uniquely American, like jazz or blues, to name two styles of American music. To my ears, their compositions sound more like an American speaking with a bad German (or French or English) accent.

        It may also be worth pointing out that the people who performed at the event are all alive and creating new music. Half of the people on your list of American composers are dead, so they couldn’t make it and the other half are making music that is difficult for most people to emotionally and intellectually access.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Clearly you’ve never heard a note written by Philip Glass, have you? Or do you think he stole minimalism from Brahms?

          But thanks for the laugh.

        • Holger H. says:

          “The acorn has not fallen far from the tree”
          Confusing statement. Of course they have not fallen far. Why should they? American culture is to a huge degree based on what the European immigration. Arts and science were up to the middle of the 20th century almost completely imported, first generation or second generation.
          Every country of origin of immigration to the US contributed in their way. Since until the second half of the 20th century the upper class was exclusively of European descent, no wonder classical music was influenced and given preferential treatment by them. Since then we see also Asians in classical music making their ways in America.
          What classical music in the US never had, was the support of substantial fractions of the middle class. It is/was that education hungry middle class, that supported classical music in quantity in the 20th century.

    • Joblo says:

      If Hip Hop is an American “gift” to the world it must be the English translation of the German word Gift – Poison.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    Um, yeah. I would never, ever associate Barry O with classical music. Just doesn’t seem to be his thing. The occasional “concert from the White House” (or nearby) on PBS has always had only pop musicians. And, frankly, does it matter if the prez is a classical music lover? I’m more concerned about how well he carries out his duties and safeguards the interests of the nation and its citizens.

  • Dave T says:

    What the hell difference does it make what kind of music Obama likes? When the economy he inherited from GWB was crashing at the rate of 400,000 job loses a month and 10s of thousands of American GI’s were being wounded or killed, I certainly did not give a damn what he thought Beecham’s Sibelius 5 or early music vibrato practices. Musical tastes is not why he, or anybody else, get elected, nor should they be.

    • Anne says:

      “Musical tastes is not why he, or anybody else, get elected, nor should they be.”

      So why is he devoting his time to this at all and, since he has chosen to do so, why shouldn’t people comment on it?

  • Eric Koenig says:

    Just because Classical music wasn’t explicitly represented at the one concert at the White House does not mean we should don sackcloth and put ashes on ourselves, wring our hands, gnash our teeth and say The End Has Come. I for one am ever hopeful for the future of Classical music in America.

    • Wilbur Huntsman II says:

      Sir, you are “hopeful for the future of classical music in America”? Then you really must be extremely naive. Haven’t you looked out the window and seen what has become of the country and its people?

  • Alvaro says:

    Reality check for a pretentious bunch. Listen up europe, the fact that you once were in charge of things does not make your music “better” or even relevant. It is what it is.

    I know 5 different all-german andean Panflute bands. Would you consider panflutes playing andean-like themes “German” music!?!? Classical music is NOT American. Period.

    And america is in no way better/worse for it. Other things (like gun ownership) take care of that.

    Classical musicians are so self important….

  • Alvaro says:

    Here’s the logic for the many racist despots who think that just because they distinguish Chopin from Liszt they are somehow “better” than the rest: “A black man can never be good. If good never the best. If the best, never perfect. And if perfect, never white”.

    Well people, when you and your sad lifes get elected president of ANYTHING (twice) then comment. For now, your overt disdain simply reflects how little classical music taste has to do with being a decemt human being. In fact, I would not be surprised to see research that showed that the more you knew about mozart, the more likely people like you are to be condescending, arrogant and just plain pretentious @ss”s.

    • jaypee says:

      Well said. Thanks.

    • Anne says:

      Obnoxious, chippy rant. Nobody here actually said that, but Obama used the word ‘eclectic’. It’s not, that’s the essential point.

      • Alvaro says:

        So, to you A concert that has jazz, r&b, and hip hop is NOT eclectic? Tell me more……

        Thats precisely what I mean by the arrogance of this very small and decaying niche: if my music is not represented, the event is “ignorant” is “not eclectic”. Says who, you?

        • Anne says:

          “A concert that has jazz, r&b, and hip hop is NOT eclectic?”

          No, it isn’t. To ignore music which has been around for a considerable time in Europe, the US and, more recently SE Asia and, whether you like it or not, has influenced the genres you seem to favour, is not eclectic IMO.

          Classical music also absorbed non European influences. You might find this surprising, Alvaro, but nobody in Europe seems to mind.

          Clear enough for you now?

  • Patrick says:

    Why do people have the strong need to denigrate music that others, but not themselves, find interesting? Lighten up, people! Classical music can take care of itself and does not need you to insult others on its behalf.

    • Grant Gershon says:

      Thank you! Many comments in this thread are utterly dismaying and jaw-droppingly ignorant. The “hip hop president”?! Esmeralda Spalding, Audra MacDonald, James Taylor etc? These are great American artists, and as a classical arts leader in Los Angeles I can confidently say that 1.) I’m not worried that MTT didn’t perform at the White House last night (though that would have been fun!) and 2.) Damn, this sounds like an amazing party!

    • Holger H. says:

      No, classical music never could take care of itself, in the economical sense. Classical music always required sponsorship, because it does not appeal to the masses to get out their wallets for a quick satisfaction.

  • Pacer1 says:

    Most are missing the point that this was the 50th anniversary of the NEH and the NEA. The President’s taste in music (notice I didn’t use the word ‘arts’) has no bearing. The concert lineup, albeit with some fine contemporary musicians, was perhaps narrow, and certainly not “eclectic” nor representative of the work or accomplishments of both feted organizations.

  • Una says:

    Poor man, he probably never had any say in the actual programme (oops, program, sorry) and it was all done by advisers. – and yes, Renee Fleming was indisposed 🙂