Classical music has its day at the White House

WASHINGTON (AP) - November 4, 2009

The president told the audience at an evening concert in the East Room that classical music is "lifting hearts and spurring imaginations" all across the nation, and is something to be enjoyed by aficionados and the uninitiated alike.

The concert featured some of today's most important young and vibrant classical musicians: violist Joshua Bell, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Awadagin Pratt. And at an afternoon performance for the young musicians, the superstars teamed up with some youngsters of uncanny ability.

Pratt plunked himself down on a piano bench next to 14-year-old Lucy Hattemer of Cincinnati to perform a Schubert duet on the East Room's Steinway. Weilerstein, 27, was upstaged by her 8-year-old partner, Sujari Britt, a student at New York's Manhattan School of Music, on a duet by Italian composer Luigi Boccherini.

Bell, performing in shirt sleeves and jeans, introduced a Paganini duet with Isbin at the afternoon concert by telling the audience that the Italian violinist was "sort of like the Beatles of his time." He also showed that not even the pros are immune to the occasional flub. During his duet with Isbin, Bell inadvertently skipped a couple of lines, and jokingly pronounced it "the abridged version."

At the evening concert, Obama tried to put the audience at ease by telling the crowd that even President Kennedy wasn't always sure when to clap during classical performances and had to get a signal from his social secretary on when to applaud.

"Fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud," he joked. "The rest of you are on your own."

At the afternoon performance, Mrs. Obama gave the youngsters a big shout-out for practicing even when they don't feel like it, lugging around heavy instruments and laboring to perfect tough pieces.

"It's through that struggle that you find what you truly have to offer to your instrument or to anything in life," she said. "You'll learn that if you believe in yourself and put in your best effort, that there's nothing that you can't achieve. And those aren't just lessons about music. These are really lessons about life."

After the first concert, 16-year-old percussionist Jason Yoder pronounced it "a very good day for classical music." A student at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts School, he performed a duet of Saint-Saens' "The Swan" with Isbin.

"In my generation, classical music is kind of looked down upon," Yoder said, adding that the White House spotlight could help change that.

The day's events were part of a White House Music Series that also has featured concerts of jazz, Latin and country music.

Earlier Wednesday, Mrs. Obama showcased after-school programs in the arts and humanities by hosting an awards ceremony for more than a dozen recipients of the Coming Up Taller awards. The awards recognize programs outside of the schools that encourage young people to express themselves through the arts.

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