On the Beat
Honors list: Martina Arroyo's big night at Kennedy Center
by BRIAN KELLOW
Arroyo and Sotomayor at the post-Honors dinner
© Margot Schulman 2014
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 year's other 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. (The concert was telecast on CBS on Dec. 29.)
Early on, Kennedy Center honorees were invariably solid, safe choices of venerable artists from the mainstream of film, theater, jazz, dance and classical music, their work mostly behind them. 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 ROY ACUFF in 1991, and rock stars were passed over until CHUCK BERRY in 2000. The caliber 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's going to Martina Arroyo. She qualifies as gifted soprano, engaging television personality and educator. Arroyo's segment was "anchored" by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United StatesSONIA 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, heart and 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."
JOSEPH CALLEJA sang a perfectly acceptable "Celeste Aida," while 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 TERENCE BLANCHARD, CHICK COREA and WAYNE SHORTER and SNOOP DOGG.
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 "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 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.
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