Last week, the Kennedy Center marked its golden anniversary with a grand spectacle in the Concert Hall, a live event full of several thousand masked guests that also doubled as the center’s public reopening after 18 months of the pandemic.
“The 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert,” directed and choreographed by Emmy-winner and Tony-nominee Joshua Bergasse, featured a parade of performing artists of the highest caliber that lasted for over two and a half hours. It will be edited down for a program, hosted by Audra McDonald airing on PBS on Friday, Oct. 1.
The performance program began by harnessing the full power of the National Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor JoAnn Falletta as they played through the exhilarating Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein, and it closed in even more glorious, uplifting fashion with a rendition of the Oscar-winning hit “Glory” featuring the song’s co-writer and hip-hop star Common backed by Broadway belter Joshua Henry and the 13-member cast of the new Broadway musical Soft Power from Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) and David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly).
“Our differences are precious and our similarities infinite,” First Lady Dr. Jill Biden said in a speech that kicked off the evening. Another early speech came from Caroline Kennedy and Rose Schlossberg, in a joint appearance paying tribute to their father and grandfather, respectively, and the center’s namesake, the 35th U.S. president.
Partly inspired by the 1962 televised fundraiser “An American Pageant for the Arts” hosted by Leonard Bernstein, the diverse and elaborate showcase had more true highlights than even the Grammy Awards ceremony typically pulls off.
Highlights included Glee star Darren Criss covering “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miz, the young classical star Ray Chen playing the finale to Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers performing “My Oh My,” a thrilling display of their style of progressive folk, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, performing an incisive and thought-provoking work of spoken-word poetry “Dignity as Currency,” delivered in a masterful rapid-fire, hip-hop style.
The true standout of the evening was the transformative, protracted riff on Duke Ellington’s jazz standard “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” led by contemporary jazz diva Dianne Reeves, who sang in a spirited and frisky interplay with Christian McBride’s dexterous bass playing. You couldn’t dream up a more fitting tribute to the past, nor a more promising signal of what’s to come at the Kennedy Center than such a vibrant and dynamic performance. The Kennedy Center at 50 airs Friday, Oct. 1, at 9 p.m., on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS video app. Visit www.weta.org.
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