At White House, music to Michelle Obama's ears

First lady Michelle Obama hosted 120 student musicians, who took master classes from classical artists, filling the White House Wednesday with the strains of cellos and pianos.

Charles Dharapak/AP
First lady Michelle Obama speaks at a Classical Music Student Workshop Concert, Wednesday, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

The White House had the feel of a music conservatory Wednesday afternoon, as 120 high school and middle school students from around the country – classical musicians all – attended master classes with some of the top names in the business.

Yours truly, serving as the print pooler for first lady Michelle Obama, got to dip into each class: First, Grammy-award winning violinist (and heart-throb) Joshua Bell, in jeans and shirt-tails, met with some 30 teenage violinists in the Map Room.

“Hey, everybody. Whaddaya think, being at the White House?”

“Woo-hoo!” the students replied.

Bell lamented that he now seems to be most famous for a Washington Post experiment he took part in almost three years ago, in which he played the violin on the street – to see if anyone would notice that he was a world-class violinist. (A few people did.)

“I guess any publicity is good publicity,” he said. “I made $38 in about 40 minutes. The good news is that I didn’t have to give my manager 20 percent.”

Next, to the Diplomatic Room, for 27-year-old cellist Alisa Weilerstein – called by New York magazine, “arguably, Yo-Yo Ma’s heiress apparent" – and a roomful of cellists. The group played the prelude to one of the Bachianas Brasileiras, by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Then it was off to the Blue Room, for virtuoso classical guitarist Sharon Isbin and a roomful of guitarists. One young player performed a piece, and she then coached him on body position and other techniques. “Do you know the formula for a more sweet, dolce sound?” she asked. It’s all about where you strum: “Divide the string in half.”

Finally, we went to the East Room, where the lively and accomplished pianist Awadagin Pratt was performing the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor by Bach (arranged by Awadagin Pratt) for piano students.

A moment of disclosure: Your correspondent ran into an old friend, Martin Goldsmith, a classical music announcer for Sirius/XM Radio, who was there for the network’s recording of the event. He tipped me off to what the performers were playing. Sirius/XM will air Wednesday night's full-dress concert over the weekend.

Then it was off to the State Dining Room, where FLOTUS em-ceed the awarding of the annual Coming Up Taller Awards, which recognize outstanding after-school and out-of-school programs in the arts and humanities. The awards, an initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, were started in 1998. Many of the programs reach at-risk youth, who then often end up doing better in school and going to college.

Mrs. Obama looked fabulous in a light gray flecked skirt suit, with a darker gray blouse, large brooch, and silver belt. Hair was in an up-do.

Fifteen groups from the US and four from abroad (Mexico, China, and Egypt) won awards. The ambassadors of those three countries attended. Each program receives a $10,000 prize.

FLOTUS spoke of “the power of the arts to change young people’s lives” and as each award was handed out, she posed with representatives from the groups – dispensing many hugs, especially to the kids.

After it was over, she declared. “Well, let’s do that again!”

Then, it was back to the East Room for the Classical Music Student Workshop Concert. Mrs. Obama spoke, and referred to the assembled students as the “classical music superstars of tomorrow.”

“I love events like this because this is what the White House is all about," she said. "It's the People's House. We say that all of the time. It's a place that's steeped in history. You can look on – the pictures on the walls, and there are so many stories that can be told. But also it's a place where we like to start new traditions and to bring people together in different ways."

Mrs. Obama also noted the hard work and dedication it takes to master a musical instrument. To the students, she said: “Many of you are perfectionists, and it takes a lot of energy and time, and it’s not always easy.”

Each of the world-class musicians performed, as did a few of the students. Perhaps most eye-popping was 8-year-old prodigy Sujari Britt of New York, who performed on the cello alongside Alisa Weilerstein. Mrs. Obama commented that Sujari is the same age as Sasha – and from a distance, she looked like Sasha Obama.

Later, I asked Sujari how much she practices each day, and she said three or four hours. Her mother said, “actually, more than that.” Because she is home-schooled, she can easily pick up her cello throughout the day and play. Sujari also mentioned the string trio she plays in with sister and brother, which, she says, practices every other day. Sujari studies at the Manhattan School of Music.

White House social secretary Desiree Rogers sat next to Mrs. Obama during the concert. Also sighted in the East Room (and in the master classes) was actor-turned-administration-official Kal Penn, who helped pull Wednesday’s music program together.

The program, which culminates in a concert this evening, was the fourth in a series started by Michelle Obama called The White House Music Series. Previous musical forms featured were jazz, country, and Latin.

The students’ travel to Washington was funded by outside organizations (not the White House), such as the VH1 Save the Music Foundation.


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