WASHINGTON (AFP) — In freezing temperatures with gusts of wind blasting Washington, four renowned musicians withstood the elements as they played an uplifting piece of classical music for the inauguration of Barack Obama.
But only Obama and a handful of people close to the quartet heard the rendition of the 19th-century Shaker hymn "Air and Simple Gifts" played on Tuesday at noon on the steps of the US Capitol.
Everyone else heard a recording prepared earlier by cellist Yo Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, Gabriela Montero on the piano and Itzhak Perlman on violin.
"It was 19 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius), there was a wind-chill, and there was no way that the instruments could have held their tune," Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, told AFP.
"The piano couldn't possibly hold its tune, Mr Ma and Mr Perlman were concerned about strings snapping and the tone, and apparently woodwinds just don't operate very well in the extreme cold," she said.
"But the musicians did perform. To say they were lip-synching is unfair and not true," she added.
Because extreme cold and a lack of humidity can sound the death knell for a 200- to 300-year-old string instrument, such as Ma's cello or Perlman's violin, and interfere with the tones of instruments, most musicians pre-record their music before performing outdoors -- especially in the dead of winter.
"There's always that concern in temperatures that low, and I know it was a major concern to Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman," said Kristin Mergen, spokeswoman for the Marine Band, who was present when the classical quartet recorded their musical ode to Obama prior to the inaugural ceremony.
"These are professional musicians who were honored to be there and they wanted to be sure that the best possible musical product was presented," she said.
"They knew they couldn't play their primary instruments in that weather, they knew they couldn't get the best possible product from their secondary musical instruments.
"They did play but they weren't miked, and what the crowd heard was the best possible product they could put out there, which is what they wanted for the occasion," Mergen said.
Every inaugural performer pre-records the piece they will perform on the day, said Florman.
Traditionally, inauguration music is provided by the Marine Band, which has hundreds of years' experience playing outdoors, and vocalists, for whom it's easier to deal with the cold than it is for instruments -- although soul diva Aretha Franklin complained of difficulties delivering her stirring version of "My country 'tis of thee" at Obama's inauguration.
The Marine Band uses everything from hot air to anti-freeze to make sure its brass and woodwind instruments will be up for performing for the president, regardless of the weather on inauguration day. And it pre-records its music, Mergen said.
"If something should happen to the instruments, we can't not have 'Hail to the Chief'," she said.
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