Presidents have apparently been hosting music concerts for well over a hundred years in the White House. Most of them (the concerts, not the Presidents) have been oriented towards classical music.
This has become increasingly important as classical music has become marginalized in American culture. In Chester Arthur’s day, the reigning divas of the opera world who came to play in the East Wing were superstars – the equivalent of Beyonce playing at the White House today.
Now, the Obama White House has to try to find the right mix of classical and popular, so that classical music and the White House don't seem so rarefied and inaccessible. Classical music continues to be a major part of what has become a very active music scene in the White House, but it shares the billing with Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, with Jack White of the White Stripes and young jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding. And all of them share the experience with kids. This may be Michelle Obama’s best innovation of all: concerts at the White House do not consist of musical stars playing privately for the elite and the powerful. Instead, they are often the evening cap to a day of private workshops, with kids who come from various, often disadvantaged backgrounds.
For these kids and their families, the White House and the experience of making music are not inaccessible. Maybe there’s still too much made-for-tv stuff, like Jack White covering a Beatles tune in front of Barack Obama and Paul McCartney (part of tonight’s PBS broadcast, by the way). But with more than 50 events already, and this coming after the arts wasteland of the previous administration, the Obama White House is already the most musical one that I can remember.
What do you think of music in the White House? Leave a comment.