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Classical 101

The Local Connection

Return to Camelot Music of the Kennedy White House
WOSU Public Media

"I can tell you that there is no city in the United States where a Democrat gets a warmer welcome and less votes than in Columbus, Ohio!"

--John F. Kennedy, Remarks in Response to New York's Birthday Salute to the President, May 19, 1962

Earl Wild

Earl Wild and the Inauguration
At John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Concert in January 1961, Earl Wild, renowned virtuoso pianist and long-time resident of Columbus, Ohio, presided as the featured pianist in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the National Symphony in Constitution Hall.

The soon-to-be legendary President was treated to a performance by a legendary pianist playing Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blueseems an appropriate choice for the inaugural concert: we remember Gershwin as an American prodigy who died too young, in the same way that we were destined to remember Kennedy.

So too, Kennedy and Wild were trendsetters in technology: Kennedy was the first President to hold live, televised debates and press conferences, and Wild was the first pianist to perform live on television. In 1997, Wild was also the first pianist to stream a live performance over the internet.

By the time Wild played for Kennedy in 1961, playing for Presidents was nothing new to him; he has performed for six consecutive Presidents of the United States in his lifetime, beginning with Herbert Hoover. He passed away in in 2010 at 94 at his home in Palm Springs, Florida."

The Blizzard 
" There was this horrible blizzard...." So begins Earl Wild's tale about the night he performed at President Kennedy's Inaugural Concert.  When he finally arrived, his reward was a chance to talk to the President and his wife backstage for twenty minutes before the show.  "I found Mrs. Kennedy to be most charming..." For more memories about this blustery, cold, snowy evening and Earl's impressions of the Kennedys.

A Profile of Earl Wild

Often heralded as "a super virtuoso" and "one of the 20th century's greatest pianists," Earl Wild was a major legendary figure performing throughout the world for seven decades. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and held the title of Distinguished Visiting Artist at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University.

Wild was on the faculty of The Juilliard School of Music, University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, Penn State University, Manhattan School of Music, and The Ohio State University. He appeared with nearly every orchestra and performed in virtually every country. Since 1937, he has recorded with 20 different record labels. This Grammy winning artist continued to perform and record into his nineties. Additional information is available at earlwild.com.

Clara O'Dette

Clara O'Dette and The Magic Flute
Former opera singer and loyal, longtime volunteer at WOSU-FM Clara O'Dette shares with us her personal stories about her performance at the White House, along with newspaper clippings and a copy of the program (below, read an account of the event). O'Dette, like Earl Wild, performed for the President under adverse weather conditions. (Click to hear Boyce Lancaster's interview with Clara O'Dette)

Listen to Boyce Lancaster's interview with Clara O'Dette.

 The Occasion 
When it came to performances at the White House, "my main concern," Jacqueline Kennedy said, "was to present the best in the arts." When the President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, came to the White House in June of 1963, Jackie wanted to give him a worthy welcome, for she had been treated "like an empress" on her visit to India the year before.

"I was so honored to be singing in the White House with so many wonderful performers. It went by in a blur; I felt as though I was in another world..."

Clara O'Dette, in conversation with Classical 101 Music Director Beverley Ervine, October 30, 2003
The First Lady invited the Opera Society of Washington, one of America's premier opera companies, to perform at the White House. Columbus' own Clara O'Dette was a member of the chorus. On June 3, the Indian President and 166 guests were treated to an elaborate dinner, followed by the Opera's thirty-minute production of the first act Finale of Mozart's The Magic Flute, translated into English by W.H. Auden.

The Monsoon 
Initially, the First Lady had wanted the musical to be experienced under the stars on the South Lawn, with lighted fountains for backdrops and the Washington Monument in the distance. Due to forecasted heavy rains, however, the production was moved indoors at the last minute.The move was no simple endeavor, however.

The indoor stage was much smaller than the original one, and the scenery would not fit. The orchestra was seated just outside the performance room, in the main corridor leading from the foyer. Conductor Paul Callaway stood with one foot in the corridor and one in the East Room, monitoring both the performers and the musicians, and hidden loudspeakers transmitted the music.

The Reviews 
"Instead of dampening spirits, the difficulties... gave the guests a sense of being caught up in something as exciting as if the effect had been stage-managed with no visible effort," said Maxine Cheshire of the Washington Post.

Audience members delighted in the double entendres of the lyrics: while Papageno, the birdman, sang "I don't know where I am," Tamino inquires "Is this the dwelling place of gods?" The Washington Post's Paul Hume deemed such "lofty attributes of those who inhabit such a place [as the White House] highly appropriate."

In spite of the weather snafu, the performance enjoyed high critical acclaim. Irving Lowens called the performance "highly satisfactory, all things considered. Indeed, it was so good that hearing only the first act Finale left one with an appetite for more."

Maxine Cheshire commented that "Even without scenery the stage was a visual delight. Lights playing on the brilliant sari colors of the singers' costumes gave an enchanting quality of iridescence."

Milton Berliner remarked that "the cast, chorus, and orchestra did their part so brilliantly that the standing-room-only audience in the East Room was completely unaware of the complications. It was, in fact, perhaps the finest White House musical event of the many the President and the First Lady have presented."

In Retrospect 
The sheer volume of newspaper articles covering this one event illustrates the country's attitude towards the White House concerts. People wanted to know minute details of each affair: the attendance list, Jackie Kennedy's attire, the placement of guests, and the menu.

The concerts were very much in the public eye, even though few were privileged to witness the performances. Jacqueline Kennedy's mission "to demonstrate that the White House could be an influence in encouraging public acceptance of the arts" was a success.

Clara O'Dette, Caroline Kennedy, and the Squirrel 
O'Dette performed once more for the Kennedy family, this time in the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University. Maurice Ravel's opera entitled "L'Enfant et les Sortileges," tells the story of naughty boy who, refusing to do his school work, destroys his bedroom.

His belongings spring to life in retaliation, turning against him, and only after he comes to the aid of a squirrel do the characters relent. After performing in the chorus, O'Dette learned that Caroline Kennedy "threw a fit" when the Secret Service insisted they leave the opera before the child could go backstage and get a look at the squirrel's face!

A Profile of Clara O'Dette
The White House performance of The Magic Flute went on in spite of inclement weather, but by this time in her life overcoming adversity was nothing new to Clara O'Dette.

At the age of 13, Clara went to work to support her family in Plainfield, New Jersey, when they were hit hard by the Great Depression. She taught herself to operate an early form of the computer and sent herself to trade school to learn IBM punch-card technology, all the while setting aside money for voice lessons, as she had dreams of a career with the Metropolitan Opera.

After several unsuccessful professional auditions, Clara landed a role in a local production of Kaufmann & Hart's "Merrily We Roll Along," where she was cast opposite her future husband, Ralph. The two married in 1946. Her musical career continued to develop despite a car accident that left her with a fractured, then wired-shut, jaw. She didn't let this keep her from performing, and her perfect pitch was not affected.

When she and her husband lived in Washington, D.C., Clara was an eight-year member of the chorus of the Washington Opera Society and performed for several luminaries. In addition to the Kennedys, Clara sang under Igor Stravinsky's direction in "Chant du Rossignol," and on another occasion met Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti backstage when the two friends attended rehearsals of Barber's Vanessa.

Clara and her husband have lived all over, moving from Washington to Japan and Korea, then Pittsburgh, Cuba, and New Jersey once more, before settling in Columbus, Ohio.

Here Clara was invited by church anthem composer John Ness Beck to become soprano section leader at University Baptist Church, near the OSU campus. With fewer performance opportunities in Columbus, however, Clara has volunteered for numerous arts organizations in the area.

Chief among these were Prestige Concerts, now Chamber Music Columbus, and the Jefferson Academy of Music. Clara's longest-term volunteer stint has been here at Classical 101: she started in 1985, and continues to volunteer today. Her combination of computer skills (she was data processing manager for a local manufacturer) and musical knowledge have made her a valuable asset to the station.

In fact, in 1996 Clara received WOSU's highest recognition for exemplary volunteer service, the Friends of WOSU Josephine S. Failer Award. Her son, Paul, a lutenist and guitarist, is now a leading figure on the international early music scene.