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Originally published January 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2009 at 3:06 PM

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Quartet including Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman faked performance

It was not precisely lip-syncing, but pretty close. The somber tones before President Obama's oath of office at the inauguration Tuesday...

The New York Times

It was not precisely lip-syncing, but pretty close.

The somber tones before President Obama's oath of office at the inauguration Tuesday came from the instruments of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two colleagues. But what the millions on the National Mall and watching on television heard was a recording, made two days earlier by the quartet and matched tone for tone by the musicians playing along.

The players and the inauguration organizing committee said the arrangement was necessary because of the extreme cold and wind Tuesday. The conditions raised the possibility of broken piano strings, cracked instruments and wacky intonation minutes before the president's swearing-in, which had problems of its own.

"Truly, weather just made it impossible," Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said Thursday.

"No one's trying to fool anybody. This isn't a matter of Milli Vanilli," she added, referring to the pop band that was stripped of a 1989 Grammy because band members did not sing on their album and lip-synced in concerts.

Florman said that the use of a recording was not disclosed beforehand but that the NBC producers handling the TV pool were told of its likelihood the day before.

Network officials said the network sent a note to pool members saying the use of recordings in the musical numbers was possible. Inaugural musical performances are routinely recorded ahead of time for just such an eventuality, Florman said.

The Marine Band and choruses, which performed throughout the ceremony, did not use a recording, she said.

"It's not something we would announce, but it's not something we would try to hide," Florman said.

Anthony McGill, a principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera, and the pianist Gabriela Montero joined Ma and Perlman in "Air and Simple Gifts," a piece written for the occasion by John Williams. While not all music critics agreed about the quality of the piece, a number took note of the frigid circumstances for the performers. And the classical-music world was heartened by the prominent place given to its field.

Perlman said the recording, made Sunday at the Marine Barracks in Washington, was used as a last resort. "It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "This occasion's got to be perfect." The musicians wore earpieces to hear the playback.

Performing along to recordings of oneself is a venerable practice, and it is usually accompanied by a whiff of critical disapproval.

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Famous practitioners since the Milli Vanilli affair include Ashlee Simpson, caught doing it on "Saturday Night Live," and Luciano Pavarotti, discovered lip-syncing during a concert in Modena, Italy. More recently, Chinese organizers superimposed the voice of a sweeter-singing girl on that of a 9-year-old performer featured at the opening ceremony of last summer's Olympic Games.

For the inauguration, the musicians argued that the magnitude of the occasion and the harsh weather made the dubbing necessary and there was no shame in it.

"I really wanted to do something that was absolutely physically and emotionally and, timingwise, genuine," Ma said. "We also knew we couldn't have any technical or instrumental malfunction on that occasion. A broken string was not an option. It was wicked cold."

Along with admiration for the musicians' work in the cold, questions had swirled in the classical-music world about whether Ma and Perlman would use their valuable cello and violin in the subfreezing temperature.

Both used modern instruments. Ma said he also had considered using a hardy carbon-fiber cello, but he rejected the idea to avoid distracting viewers with its unorthodox appearance. "What we were there for was to really serve the moment," he said.

As for Aretha Franklin, she told talk-show host Larry King the cold weather hurt her performance of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," saying, "Mother Nature was not very kind to me. I'm going to deal with her when I get home."

Material from The Washington Post

is included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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