Yo-Yo Ma On Recorded Music At Inauguration

Inauguration Day was so cold, musician Yo-Yo Ma and others recorded their performance two days earlier and played along during Tuesday's ceremony. It was feared the frigid temperatures would crack instruments and break strings. Ma discusses what happened.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

At Tuesday's inaugural, as President Obama waited to be sworn in, we heard an all-star quartet play a piece written for the occasion by John Williams, "Air and Simple Gifts." It used the theme from an old Shaker song that Aaron Copland used in "Appalachian Spring."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero, and clarinetist Anthony McGill performed in the frigid midday air - or so it seemed. Now, it turns out that what people on the Mall and at home actually heard was a recording. Yo-Yo Ma is on the line from New York. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. YO-YO MA (Cellist): Yes. Hi, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: And I just can't resist. I'm sorry. Say it ain't so, Yo-Yo.

Mr. MA: OK. I'll say it ain't so, but it is so, and I'll tell you this is standard operating procedure for the Marine Band that performs at every inaugural. And what they do is because it's on January 20th, you never know what the weather is going to be like. So we recorded on Sunday and on Monday, we had the - a sound check. So I think somewhere between that rehearsal and realizing that all of our instruments were not really functioning - in fact, during the sound check on the 19th, Gabriela would be playing the keys, and then the keys would just stay down.

SIEGEL: But was there - if I had been standing in the middle of the quarter during the programs, would I have heard an actual performance from the four of you or...

Mr. MA: You would have heard sounds from the monitors that were on the stage with us, and you would have thought that those sounds came straight from us.

SIEGEL: So you were not putting bow to string as you were doing this.

Mr. MA: We were.

SIEGEL: You were.

Mr. MA: If you put soap on the bow...

SIEGEL: Ah, I see.

Mr. MA: There is no friction.

SIEGEL: You had greased the bow.

Mr. MA: Because actually, usually rosin, which is, you know, the resin that you put on the horsehair of the bow, that friction, those little grains of resin is what makes the strings vibrate.

SIEGEL: I thought that I saw Gabriela Montero playing the keyboard. I mean...

Mr. MA: You did.

SIEGEL: Yes.

Mr. MA: And the piano technician was wonderful. Actually, he was able to decouple the keys from, actually, the hammers hitting, you know, the inside of the - the hammers hitting the strings. Hence, you have a silent piano.

SIEGEL: So what we saw, as we heard this very lovely recording of the John Williams piece, we saw an impeccable pantomime of the piece that the four of you were doing.

Mr. MA: Yeah. I think what you saw is what actually, routinely happens in film, and it's obviously standard for very large events where the unpredictability of whether - where you can't afford a mishap.

SIEGEL: Now, was there any discussion of whether there should be any tipping of the hand about what was going on here or any...

Mr. MA: I think - let me put it to you this way. If we had not done that, we would have had four and a half minutes of absolute disaster. Everything would have been out of tune. We would have had broken strings. Basically, you would have had a very poor, "American Idol "rendition of what, you know, what John Williams had created, which is a beautiful piece of music. And we really knew that our purpose there was to serve the moment just before the swearing-in of the president.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MA: Robert, it's always a pleasure to talk with you.

SIEGEL: Yo-Yo Ma, thanks a lot.

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What's The Big Deal With Inauguration 'Lip-Synching'?

Yo-Yo Ma at the inauguration

hide captionYo-Yo Ma performs at Tuesday's inauguration. Not pictured, but beside him, are Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montero.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The New York Times reported Thursday night that the lovely, contemplative musical preface to President Obama's swearing in was, essentially, a fake: Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montero were not actually playing "Air and Simple Gifts" live for the million-plus crowd gathered on the mall (plus all the television sets around the globe). Instead, the Times reported, they were doing the classical-music equivalent of lip-syncing.

As Ashlee Simpson discovered during her ill-fated appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2004, the greatest danger of lip-syncing is getting caught in the act. The idea of lip-syncing conjures up, whether deserved or not, the image of an inauthentic artist trying desperately to hide his or her lack of talent, propped up by unnamed songwriters, stylists, producers and engineers, all banding together to create a star. It's easy to snicker at a Potemkin performer taken down a notch.

So what to make of the performance that was piped in and acted out on Tuesday by four immensely talented classical musicians — musicians whose accomplishments and competence are not in question?

The producers of the event (and the musicians themselves) wanted and even needed the moment to be transporting. And they also surely knew that they were set up to fail: The instruments in the quartet weren't designed to be played outside, let alone in freezing temperatures. The musicians wouldn't be able to hear each other well, and the open air offers none of the support of fine concert halls, where the acoustics can help lift a melody and let it soar. So, on this special occasion, they opted for control. (They weren't the only ones with a recording lined up if needed; the U.S. Marine Band also had a backup tape in case temperatures got too low.)

In spite of the technical assist, it's hard to argue with the result of Tuesday's maneuver: It was a transporting moment that moved many with its beauty and calm. In the end, audiences heard the performers' best possible interpretation of the music, which set the stage for the momentous events to follow.

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