THE BLOG
02/05/2008 03:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sunday: Politics Set to Music

A Sunday afternoon symphony concert in Baltimore seemed to set the table for Super Tuesday -- indeed, for the auspicious 2008 presidential election. It seemed the gang was all there, just when I thought I'd gone where they couldn't follow.

First there was Hillary Clinton running the show.

Up on the podium ready to conduct was a handsome woman in a black pantsuit, the talk of the classical music world in her first season as the first woman to head a major American orchestra. Marin Alsop is a media darling who shows up all over the pages of the press, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. Her stylish crop of reddish brown hair resembles Hillary Clinton's 'do, giving the daughter of New York classical musicians an aura of authority. As part of her story, the maestra was touched, taught and inspired by a master, the late Leonard Bernstein, at the Tanglewood Music Center. Alsop later came to national and international prominence when she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2005.

In other words, if any woman was going to break the formidable barriers to conducting classical music in our time, it was going to be the poised and ambitious Alsop. In her 50s, she looks and plays the part and, unlike old school conductors , she speaks the part deftly, addressing audiences on a few fine points of the upcoming piece. With savvy and star power, the Yale-educated Alsop has started filling the 2,000 seats of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with livelier, engaging programming. The musicians under her baton say with a wry shrug and a laugh that she is Hillary Clinton's spiritual twin, but the main thing is she has invigorated the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Then a piquant melody that recalled Barack Obama and a flowering of African-American culture floated through the air.

For the first piece, Alsop chose "Harlem," a vibrant ode composed by Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington in the 1940s. (Who knew that was his full name?) In fact, Alsop told the audience, the piece is more like a tone poem than anything. To our collective delight, the orchestra played with the swing of a band, with the trumpets and other wind instruments sounding more sprightly than ever. Harlem back on a long-ago Sunday morning suddenly burst into life, evoking a complete world which Ellington himself described: "You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands." The gorgeous piece was a reminder of the rich medley of politics, jazz, blues and literature produced in Harlem in the first half of the 20th century.

Obama is the candidate who seems to live in a realm of a renaissance, a place where poetry also dwells. When he speaks, there is an improvisational quality that contains a sense of where American went right and where America went wrong. That undercurrent is akin to the blues, but like the bright melody that prevails in Ellington's composition, Obama seems to hold a vision of a happier hour in history, at what he calls a "defining moment" for war, peace and the planet.

The second piece was the reason I went to the concert: Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" ballet score, which he wrote for Martha Graham in the 1940s. Again, Alsop had something to say, regarding the irony of the theme by a composer whom, she said jokingly, rarely left his Brooklyn apartment. Copland, a 20th century American composer, was one of the first American Jews to achieve prominence in the classical canon. The program notes said he was inspired by the nation's original pioneer spirit, including rural weddings and the simple life of Shaker communities. "Simple Gifts," a Shaker dance tune, runs through the composition like a spinning wheel.

With politics on my mind, I paired up Copland with McCain. They might be seen as outsiders in their own country or party, given their strong-minded views and willingness to go it alone. Copland seemed to like his own company in his Brooklyn apartment, while John McCain survived a few years in solitary at the Hanoi Hilton, where he was detained as a prisoner of the Vietnam War. There is a streak of exuberance and life force in "Appalachian Spring," just as there is in McCain's robust, undaunted personality.

This alone is a simple gift: if Obama or McCain is elected, each is an individual the other side can at least like and perhaps accept.

Reader, in all my years as a symphonygoer, I'd never seen such a trifecta of talent that departed from the usual suspects. Much as I love Brahms and Beethoven, time after time it's a Germanic composer and a conductor that looks related to Mitt Romney. Until Sunday.

Baltimore, so goes the nation today.

Jamie Stiehm is a writer based in Baltimore.