More or less off the top of my head, here’s a list of composers from whom I would have rather heard a new composition at the Presidential Inauguration than from John Williams.
Top 3: Joseph Schwantner (see in particular New Morning for the World), Ned Rorem, and William Bolcolm. Venerable American composers you’ve probably never heard of, Pulitzer Prize winners all, living in the present while linked to history, undisputed masters of their art.
Extended free association list: Bernard Rands, John Adams, Chen Yi, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Steve Mackey, Bright Sheng, Steven Hartke, Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Torke, Wynton Marsalis, David Del Tredici, Tod Machover, Dan Trueman, John Harbison, Augusta Reed Thomas, Dominick Argento…
You might consider even pulling in some of the more minimalist or experimental folks like Ingram Marshall, maybe even Steve Reich (though his more recent stuff is kind of stuffy, dull, and dogmatic, so maybe not). Or even some of the more prickly modernists, folks like George Perle (who died last Friday, perhaps the most romantic of the American modernists), Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Leon Kirchner, or Ellen Taaffe Zwillich. I think any of these composers would have the perspective and sensibility in their work to provide something suitably celebratory.
Basically, anyone other than John Williams. If inclusion of a classical piece on the inaugural program was meant to signify an advocacy of the fine arts, well, I can’t think of a composer less in need of advocacy than John Williams. The NY Times reported that classical musicians were pleased that their field was represented at the inauguration, but it really wasn’t. Not that John Williams can’t write a classical piece if he wants to, and not to denigrate his formidable mastery of the orchestral medium in any way, but he represents, is in fact virtually synonymous with, a very different practice, one that is more geared towards providing a rollicking good time than probing the depths and extremities of human experience, which is basically what classical music is for (not by some divine mandate or whatever, but just because this is how the tradition has evolved, or rather this is the name given to the musical tradition that does this…erm, I’m putting too fine a point on it…anyway…).
John Williams has written some great stuff, but that piece was an embarrassment. I can’t imagine why any composer would attempt to appropriate the same Shaker tune that Aaron Copland had already treated so masterfully and definitively in “Appalachian Spring.” This felt like a tossed off, Cliff’s Notes summary of Copland’s piece, especially silly when there are so many other good Shaker tunes on which to draw, if a composer feels so compelled. (Actually, upon further reflection, I will also nominate a pal of mine for the Retroactive Inaugural Composer post: Kevin Siegfried. If you need a Shaker tune manipulated, he is your go-to man, much more so than John Williams.)
A good friend of mine suggested that the event surely had to be toned down for the masses, leading to this most populist choice of composer. But I would counter that a presidential inauguration is the ideal forum for a rigorous, sensitive, celebratory work, something that embodies the ideals of a nation, rather than the feel-good, escapist bonbon we heard on the broadcast. A piece that doesn’t ignore contemporary woes with a nostalgic throwback to simpler times, but that stands strong in the present moment on the firm foundation of history, resolute without being pompous or jingoistic. Art that actually earns the right to feel good. If such a historic presidential inauguration isn’t the occasion for such serious classical music, I don’t know what is.
BTW, the same list above, more or less, also holds for my Retroactive Commission for the NY Philharmonic’s first concert in North Korea last year. Dvorak’s New World Symphony was an obvious choice, having been commissioned by the NY Philharmonic, but what an embarassment to show up with no living composers on the program, to suggest that Gershwin’s American in Paris was the best our country had to offer, and honor Bernstein with nothing but the Candide overture as an encore.