Barack Obama: Air and Simple Gifts

Just before Barack H. Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced musicians Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Gabriela Montero (piano) and Itzhak Perlman (violin). This illustrious quartet performed a new piece, Air and Simple Gifts, written by American composer John Williams. Mr. Williams is best known for writing the film scores for motion pictures including Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jaws, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List, for which he won both an Oscar and a Grammy. Both Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman frequently perform in collaboration with Mr. Williams.

Yo-Yo Ma, born in Paris, France in 1955 to Chinese parents, moved to the United States as a young boy. In 1963, when he was seven years old, the child prodigy played his cello in a performance for President John F. Kennedy. He was one of the 2001 recipients of the the National Medal of the Arts, along with artist Helen Frankenthaler, actor Kirk Douglas, singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, filmmaker Mike Nichols and others.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, born in Israel in 1945, was also honored with the National Medal of the Arts. He received the award in 2000. That same year the recipient list also included artists Claes Oldenburg and Chuck Close, and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Mr. Perlman was a soloist in John Williams’ score for Schindler’s List in 1993.

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, 38, makes her home in Massachusetts with her two daughters and her mother. She is known for her improvisational style, a technique that is more closely associated with jazz than with classical music. “Because improvisation is such a huge part of who I am, it is the most natural and spontaneous way I can express myself. I have been improvising since my hands first touched the keyboard,” she said.

South Side Chicagoan Anthony McGill, 29, is now principal clarinetist with the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. His former teacher, Barry Elmore, founder of the Chicago Teen Ensemble, sees similarities in the lives of President Obama and Mr. McGill. “They both worked hard all their lives, they’ve achieved much in their life over a short time, so there are those parallels,” he said. Mr. McGill also talked about the parallels. “As Obama says he did, I tried to just work hard when I was the only black person in the room; that’s the important thing. It wasn’t any odd-man out type of focus…. You’ve got to have your eye on the goal, not on your idea of the barrier.”

See Also:
The John Williams Web Pages
National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Honors
Biography of Itzhak Perlman
Clarinetist delivers the day’s other breakthrough performance (Chicago Tribune; January 20, 2009)
Gabriela Montero (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)H