On the Beat

On the Beat

by BRIAN KELLOW

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The 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors at the White House on December 7: the honorees include actress Shirley MacLaine; soprano Martina Arroyo; pianist, singer and songwriter Billy Joel; musician and songwriter Carlos Santana and pianist, keyboardist, bandleader and composer Herbie Hancock
Photo: John Paul Filo/CBS © CBS Broadcasting, Inc. 2013
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Martina Arroyo and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Kennedy Center Honors on December 7
© Margot Schulman 2013

On December 7, at a State Department gala dinner at the White House, MARTINA ARROYO became the eleventh opera singer to receive America's highest cultural accolade, the Kennedy Center Honors. The remaining honorees are CARLOS SANTANA, SHIRLEY MACLAINE, HERBIE HANCOCK and BILLY JOEL. All of them were fêted again on the night of December 8 at the Kennedy Center Opera House's annual star-studded concert, hosted by GLENN CLOSE.

Throughout the event's thirty-six-year history, the Kennedy Center Honors have earned a reputation as one of network television's most distinguished special occasions and received numerous Emmy Awards; this year's concert will air on December 29 at 9 p.m. 

Early on, Kennedy Center honorees were invariably solid, safe choices of venerable artists from the mainstream of film, theater, jazz, dance and classical music whose work was mostly behind them. Could anyone really argue with the decision to recognize MARIAN ANDERSON, GEORGE BALANCHINE, FRED ASTAIRE, RICHARD RODGERS and LEONARD BERNSTEIN? That pattern was sustained for many years. Although folk was represented by PETE SEEGER and R&B by B.B. KING and RAY CHARLES, no country-music artist was deemed worthy of selection until JOHNNY CASH in 1996, and rock stars were passed over until CHUCK BERRY in 2000. In recent years, rock and soul artists have frequently been recognized, with awards going to LED ZEPPELIN, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and TINA TURNER, among others. The level of choices has been consistently high, with only a handful of head-scratchers (1997's LAUREN BACALL, a puzzling choice given the many genuinely gifted film actresses worthy of consideration, and 2010's OPRAH WINFREY, presumably recognized for elevating sanctimony to an art form). 

There could hardly be any qualms about the award going to Martina Arroyo. She qualifies as gifted soprano, engaging television personality, educator. Arroyo's segment was "anchored" by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States SONIA SOTOMAYOR, who got a big laugh when she announced, "I'm here for the diva." She added, "Long before 'diva' took on a different meaning, it generally meant the most celebrated of opera singers," a word "used to describe only those opera singers who took us to another world. Now that's the kind of diva I'm talking about. That's Martina Arroyo." Sotomayor went on to praise Arroyo for her grit, determination, dedication and heart, and pointed to the soprano's famous quick wit, observing, "You might be a diva without a sense of humor, but you can't be my diva."  

Each honoree receives a video tribute as well as a cluster of live performances. The visuals on Arroyo were high quality: there were photos of her as a young choral singer, with her mother; a rare clip of her as a young woman singing "Summertime"; and some choice moments from her twenty-odd guest appearances on The Tonight Show. There were also audio snatches of "Vissi d'arte" and Un Ballo in Maschera's "Teco io sto," with LUCIANO PAVAROTTI — the most thrilling performance of this duet I've heard. Sotomayor concluded that Arroyo's "life has been like the plot of an opera — improbable and glorious." 

The live performances that followed were something of a letdown. Arroyo's signature role, Aida, provided the unifying theme, and while JOSEPH CALLEJA sang a perfectly acceptable "Celeste Aida," SONDRA RADVANOVSKY's "O patria mia" was too thin and bleached-out to have much impact. 

The rest of the program had many high points. HARRY BELAFONTE, introducing Carlos Santana's segment, said, "Thank God I did 'Day-O' long before his banana boat arrived." He also took a shot at the current anxiety over Mexican immigration, cracking, "that Chicano sound, that Mexican [sound] … it all sounds kinda foreign. We should have built a bigger fence." 2012 Kennedy Center honoree BUDDY GUY, as well as SHEILA E. and STEVE WINWOOD, offered electric performances as part of Santana's musical tribute. The Herbie Hancock sequence was anchored, inexplicably, by BILL O'REILLY, who entered to tepid applause and said, "I know — I'm surprised, too…. Over the years, I've talked to Herbie a few times. I don't hang with him. I don't want to ruin his reputation." There were also numbers from TERRENCE BLANCHARD, CHICK COREA and WAYNE SHORTER and SNOOP DOG. 

The SHIRLEY MACLAINE sequence was the least successful of the evening. KATHY BATES got the segment off to a lively start with her observation that the four films she and MacLaine did together "have totaled no Oscar nominations and the same number of Golden Globes." Addressing MacLaine directly, Bates said, "You heard the music of the spheres, and you had the courage to dance to it all of your life." There were several goofs: the video tribute mentioned the actress's two Oscar nominations in the 1950s and '60s — there were three — and the clip of The Apartment's final scene cut off before the actress's classic zinger, "Shut up and deal." SUTTON FOSTER, low on charisma, led a medley of songs associated with MacLaine, including "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "Steam Heat." 

Best of all was the BILLY JOEL tribute, which praised him as the first American rock musician to play Russia and featured compelling performances of "Big Shot" by BRENDON URIE, "She's Got a Way" by DON HENLEY, "Only the Good Die Young" by GARTH BROOKS and "New York State of Mind" and "Piano Man" by RUFUS WAINWRIGHT. There was also a rousing version of "Goodnight, Saigon," in which the soloists were joined by a gospel choir and members of the U.S. Armed Forces. It might have struck some as mildly jingoistic, but it provided the emotional wallop of the evening.

And that was what was this year's Honors had in somewhat short supply. As a devoted viewer of the Kennedy Center telecasts for decades, I have many memories of the show's most heartfelt moments. I think that's why many of us have watched the program for years — it's a wonderfully concise way of tapping into the deep affection that we feel for our great artists. My colleague MARIO MERCADO, arts editor of Travel & Leisure, recently told me, "The Kennedy Center Honors may be the one night of the year when I am unequivocally proud to be an American." In this age when the U.S. government can be capriciously shut down and a deaf ear turned to the suffering of thousands of citizens as a result, I am sure that many of us would echo that sentiment. All of a sudden, all the clichés about American artists representing the best part of ourselves seem not clichés at all but something to hang on to more tightly than ever. Two Kennedy Center Honors memories that stand out for me: the look of nostalgic wonder on CARY GRANT's face when the company of Broadway's Barnum showed up to perform "Come Follow the Band" — a touching reminder of his early days as a vaudeville acrobat; and the devastating sadness on LUCILLE BALL's face when ROBERT STACK read a letter from her ex-husband and creative partner DESI ARNAZ: "P.S. I Love Lucy was more than just a title." Like the Oscars and the Emmys, the Kennedy Center Honors telecast is a very different animal from the live experience. In the theater, the program seemed a little slick; perhaps the December 29 telecast will reveal more of those touching moments we all treasure. spacer

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6