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

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

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.

Copyright NPR 2017.

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