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January 4, 2013

Inaugural music: It's nice, but it's not a concert

(Continued)

And the attempt to use art as a symbol can often backfire. Works of art are hard to cubbyhole into pat, marketing-style categories; even the "Adagio for Strings," which was originally inspired by Virgil's "Georgics," is somewhat subversive when played as a work of mourning. And a work of art that is intended merely to stand for something arguably lacks the force or content of a work created from an expressive vision. Visual artists from Rodchenko to Warhol, Lichtenstein to Koons have played around with the art-as-symbol trope, but it's been rarer in composition; Shostakovich is the only composer who comes immediately to mind, and playing his music at an inauguration would be the supreme act of expressive ambiguity.

But it's open to question just how much force these symbols have in any case. One long-standing quasi-tradition, observed at many though not all inaugurations in the past 50-odd years, is the presence of an African American female vocalist to perform either the national anthem or another appropriately patriotic opus: Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, Ethel Ennis and, finally, at Obama's first inauguration, Aretha Franklin. Inaugurations are apparently one of the few areas of public life in which women of color enjoy an overwhelming majority. It's not clear exactly what this symbolizes, either, though one thing is certain: Aretha, like Yo-Yo Ma, may have felt her musicmaking was affected by the cold weather, but she and her hat turned in a wonderful performance.

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