To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here we go again.
The revelation that millions of people who saw the inauguration of President Barack Obama were actually listening to recorded music instead of the actual performance of the Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman-led quartet has led to comparisons of lip-synching (though, in this case, might the correct term be hand-synching?) and drawn comparisons to other infamous cases, including Ashlee Simpson's "Saturday Night Live" debacle and perhaps music's most famous pantomimes, Milli Vanilli.
But Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, says she doesn't understand what the fuss is all about.
"I think this is a whole lot of nothin'," she said on Friday. "These are world-class performers who are playing in 19 degree weather and the technical requirements of their instruments made it impossible for them to have their music amplified and know that it would be in tune. So they made, what I think, was probably a difficult decision to play to tape."
A representative for Perlman echoed her comments Friday with the following statement: "Mr. Perlman was deeply honored to be a part of the inauguration ceremony. The brutal cold created the distinct possibility of broken or out of tune instruments and, in order to avoid a weather related issue detracting from the majesty of the day, a decision was reached to play along to the recording that the quartet had made earlier in the week."
Cellist Ma, violinist Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero and Metropolitan Opera clarinet player Anthony McGill performed "Air and Simple Gifts," a piece arranged by Oscar-winning composer John Williams. Montero was wearing gloves, but the rest of the quartet played their instruments barehanded in the frigid 28-degree weather.
Florman said they were indeed playing their instruments and not miming their moves. But those who saw the event did not hear that, but the recorded track.
Don Mischer of Don Mischer Productions, which produced the pre-Inauguration "We Are One" concert, the last few Super Bowl halftime performances as well as two Olympics, says some kind of recorded music is often used at major events, especially when there are poor weather conditions.
"The main thing is that you want the music to sound good, and there are some conditions in which the music will not sound good," he said.
Florman said everyone performing at the inauguration, from Aretha Franklin to the U.S. Marine Band, recorded a version of their performance as a precautionary measure, typical for such events. But Franklin sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" live, and the band also performed live.
Florman said when Obama made his request for the quartet, because of the delicacy of the instruments and the size of the grand piano, there was some consideration given to having the quartet play at the Capitol and have their performance beamed to the world.
"Everyone agreed that they needed to perform someplace so (Obama) could actually watch the performance," she said. "But obviously the drawback is that they're out in the elements."
Kent Webb, manager of technical services and support for the famous Steinway & Sons piano maker, said its instruments are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and the extreme cold would not only have made the instrument out of tune, but would have made the keys susceptible to sticking.
"The playability and the amount of finesse that one can extract from a performance are very compromised," Kent said.
The idea that the quartet's music was not heard live may be heresy to some in classical music ‹ the late Luciano Pavarotti caused a stir when it was discovered he lip-synched on one occasion. But while it may not be as widely publicized as when a pop star lip-synchs, it does happen, says Mischer (though he added the hope is to "always go live.")
He produced the opening ceremonies at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, in which the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed. He said the ensemble did so to recorded music.
"There was no way that we could in fact mike the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and make them sound good on a show that was going to be seen by 80 percent of the planet," he said.
He also recalled his production of the opening ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which featured Ma in a performance with Sting. While Sting's vocals were live, what viewers heard was a recorded performance by the cellist.
"Yo-Yo has got a Stradivarius cello that's worth ... $2 million or $3 million," he said. "We had snow falling that night, we had 17 degree temperature, we had the wind blowing as high as 20 mph, and that's a very very risky environment in which to play an instrument like that and expect it to sound good. And it's not like someone else played the music, Yo-Yo played the music."
Mischer said during the torrential downpour during Prince's 2007 Super Bowl performance, the rocker sang live and even played his wireless guitars live, but the percussion was piped in because of the rain.
But even in good conditions, getting good sound in an open-air stadium, or sometimes even a domed arena, is difficult.
Some artists choose to lip-synch ‹ Whitney Houston's memorable performance of the national anthem in 1991 at the Super Bowl was sung to a track. "There are artists who absolutely want to go with prerecorded tracks because they worked hard to create a sound, and they want it to sound good," said Mischer.
But for this year's Super Bowl, which features Bruce Springsteen as the halftime performer, don't expect any lip-synching from the Boss.
"Bruce Springsteen is going to go 100 percent live," he said. "That's the way Bruce wants it."
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here we go again.