In the music of the Monday inaugural ceremony there were some fine non-pop moments, if not quite classical. The light military arrangements of the Marine Corps Band drew from classical music traditions. The singing of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir drew from gospel, jazz and classical.
One living composer, David Ludwig, had a choral work performed -- well out of the limelight during the president's morning church service: a setting of the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
As significant as they must have been for Ludwig and the Brooklyn choir, those performances don't really represent a view of music as art, or even entertainment, but as functionary, dangerously close to background music. Similarly, the Eastman String Quartet was hired to play for an hour at an inaugural lobster lunch over the clink of glasses and noise of constant conversation.
As in Lady Gaga's routine -- and she often has her finger on the pulse of cultural trends -- classical music has been relegated to the role of a prop.
Early in his first term, Obama made a commitment to present the U.S. cultural landscape in all its diversity. At that first inauguration, he shared the podium with Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill playing a John Williams variation on the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." He followed up on his promise by hosting workshops and concerts in various styles at the White House during the first year or two he was in office.
But at this year's inaugural, that broader cultural perspective seems to have gone missing, narrowed to focus more fully on the most common commercial tendencies, music as a commodity.
I hope it's not an indication of his new administration's attitude toward the arts in general. I like Lady Gaga -- really, I'm not being funny. But we don't need to see her at the White House. We need to see more of those workshops. We need to see some real music.
As he has done in the past, the president needs to show his public support for all the arts and put the damper pedal down on the loud din of commerce ringing through our culture. He needs to help us see that money doesn't have to be part of the equation. He needs to help us set higher expectations for ourselves.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.