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White House has long musical tradition

From Chester Arthur to Bill Clinton, a collection of moments from presidential concerts
/ Source: The Associated Press

Melancholy ballad
The first East Room concert for an invited audience took place on Feb. 23, 1883, when Chester Arthur had more than 100 guests hear members of Her Majesty’s Opera Company sing Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. The star of the evening was famed Canadian soprano Emma Albani, who sang “Robin Adair” as her final selection. The song had special meaning for Arthur, whose late wife Ellen had sung the Irish ballad many times at Arthur’s request.

The Lion shinesTheodore Roosevelt’s White House was the first to feature a Steinway piano, and great pianists soon followed. Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s first appearance at the White House in April 1902 was recounted by portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, who wrote: “The yellow head of the Lion shone gloriously against the satin of the Blue Room. ... I think it may have been better than hearing Chopin himself.” Paderewski described the president’s reaction: “The president listened with charming interest and applauded vociferously and always shouted out ‘Bravo! Bravo! Fine! Splendid!’ — even during the performance.”

No thanksFranklin and Eleanor Roosevelt brought in professional dancers to the White House for the first time. They featured black vocal artists, the first staged opera, women’s organizations, ethnic groups and an array of American folk singers and players never before seen in the mansion. Offers to perform in the Roosevelt White House came in at the rate of 250 a season during the 1930s. Some who never made it: a young man who demonstrated the “Theremin Wave — a scientific musical mystery,” a woman who played the piano wearing mittens, and an 18-month-old baby who directed music in perfect time.

Song of an exileFamed Spanish cellist Pablo Casals played in Theodore Roosevelt’s White House in 1904, but he stopped making American appearances in 1938 because the United States had recognized the Franco dictatorship. Casals lived in exile, vowing not to return to Spain until democracy was restored. When President John Kennedy sent him a letter inviting him to play for a November 1961 state dinner, Casals accepted because of his admiration for the president. The hour-long concert was serious, featuring works by Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Francois Couperin, and closed with a powerful encore. “You might know this song,” Casals said, almost weeping. “It’s a Catalan folk song, ‘The Song of the Birds’ — but to me, it’s the song of the exile.”

Kennedy’s cuesKennedy was caught more than once clapping at the wrong time during classical numbers, and sometimes was uncertain when a concert was finally over. Social secretary Letitia Baldrige worked out a secret signal to cue him on when to clap. “As the last piece was almost finished, I was to open the central door of the East Room from the outside about two inches — enough for him to glimpse the prominent Baldrige nose structure in the crack. It worked beautifully that night and for all future concerts,” Baldrige said.

Nixon’s bluesFive months before Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, he hosted governors in March 1974 at the White House, where blues great Pearl Bailey provided after-dinner entertainment. Bailey persuaded Nixon to play the piano, telling the president he could choose any number he wanted. But when Nixon began playing “Home on the Range,” Bailey complained, “Mr. President, I want to sing a song, not ride a horse.” Then the two of them had trouble finding the same key. “I don’t know whether I’m finding him, or he’s finding me,” Bailey said. Vice President Gerald Ford said he’d never laughed so hard. Nixon said: “I just want to say to our distinguished guests that this piano will never be the same again and neither will I.”

Salt peanutsThe Carters loved classical music, but also wanted to showcase ethnic and folk traditions as well. In June 1978, the White House hosted a jazz concert on the South Lawn in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival. The concert featured nine decades of jazz performers, including 95-year-old Eubie Blake, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and others. Carter, sitting on the lawn in his shirt sleeves, asked Gillespie to play “Salt Peanuts” and joined in with repeated chants of “salt peanuts” in the breaks.

Close callFrank Sinatra didn’t have much time to rehearse when the Reagan White House asked him to perform for a state dinner for Sri Lanka in 1984. Security at the White House was tightened in the aftermath of the bombing of the Beirut embassy bombing, and so bomb-sniffing dogs had to check out everything coming into the mansion, including musical instruments. On the day of the dinner, the dogs became too exhausted to work anymore, and Sinatra’s instruments were stranded outside the East Gate until replacement dogs could be called in.

Velvet undergroundWhen the Clinton White House welcomed Czech President Vaclav Havel for a state dinner in 1998, the former playwright made a special request for entertainment by rocker Lou Reed, a founding member of the former rock group Velvet Underground. The group had helped inspire Havel’s leadership of the “Velvet Revolution” that brought democracy to the Czech Republic. In halting English, Havel told about getting his first earful of Reed’s music during a visit to Greenwich Village in 1968, and said, “I’ve been listening to it for 30 years.” Reed’s band for the White House gig included Milan Hlavsa, a bass player from the Czech Republic whose music was inspired in part by Reed.