This post has been updated.
This Tuesday, see D.C. at its most glamorous.
The Kennedy Center Honors, an annual celebration of America’s most accomplished performers, is one of the highest achievements in the arts. This year’s Kennedy Center Honorees — actress Meryl Streep, singer Neil Diamond, actress and singer Barbara Cook, musician Yo-Yo Ma, and musician Sonny Rollins (pictured below) — will be lauded by celebrity peers, and will join a distinguished group of cherished performers such as Itzhak Perlman, Cary Grant and Ella Fitzgerald, among others who have been given the honors.
The honorees’ backgrounds are as varied as America itself, but this year’s recipients share a dedication to their respective crafts and a belief that their career is still a work in progress. They’ll be awarded their medals in a star-studded ceremony on Sunday, which will air CBS on Dec. 27 at 9 p.m.
Many words have been written about these performers’ careers over the many years of their accomplishments — but they still have the ability to surprise us. The Post staff profiled the living legends this year. Read on for glimpses at some of America’s finest artists:
Writes Peter Marks:
How is it that a woman who made her Broadway debut in 1951 (in a flop called “Flahooley”) and is the resonant soprano on the original vinyl recordings of “The Music Man,” “Candide” and “She Loves Me” can in 2011 still be a supple source of musicality? Cook attributes her longevity to first-rate training: “In 1953, I got with the teacher who built my voice, Bob Kobin,” she says, sitting in her living room overlooking Riverside Park, seeming relaxed in black slacks and black turtleneck.
He instilled in her a comprehension that if properly used, the voice would last. “He used to say the vocal cords are among the strongest things in your body,” Cook says, adding that she’s a firm nonbeliever in wrapping the throat in scarves and all that pampering stuff. It’s learning how to manipulate the muscle that counts. “You can forget about hot tea and lemon, too,” she says, with a dismissive wave.
Writes Dave Sheinin:
Neil Diamond, somewhat disconcertingly, speaks the same way he sings. The same baritone voice. The same rich timbre. The same melancholy inflection. The cadence with which he once sang, “Where it began / I can’t begin to knowin’ / But then I know it’s growin’ strong” is the same one with which he now says, “Falling in love is such a wonderful feeling to experience at this point in my life.” Such is the effect that, were he to bust out in song (“Good times never seemed so good!”), you would not be the least bit surprised, but would do the only acceptable thing — which, of course, would be to answer: “So good! So good! So good!”
Alas, it never happens. But that voice, so familiar and warm as it fills the empty spaces of a salon in a Midtown Manhattan hotel, sounds as though it should be drenched in strings, his declarations punctuated by a majestic, descending horn figure (“Bah bah bah!”).
“Exhilaration,” Diamond says, “is the operable word this year.” (“Bah bah bah!”)
Writes Philip Kennicott:
“Go to YouTube and watch him perform Saint-Saens’s “The Swan,” one of the hoariest chestnuts of the repertoire. The music swells and subsides in long arcs, as if sung in one ecstatic breath. His bow never seems to run out of room, extending the sound seamlessly. His left hand rocks delicately on the strings, making the tone quiver like the voice of someone remembering a very sad story. He’s played it a hundred times, perhaps a thousand times or more. But every note of every phrase feels fresh and meaningful.”
Writes Chris Richards:
Rollins describes the mysteries of improvisation plainly: “You make what might seem like a breakthrough. And then . . . you have to take a step back. You take a step forward. Then you have to take a step or two to the side. The idea that, ‘Oh, gee, now I’ve got it, I’m right on the track’ — that never really materializes.”
He remains hypercritical of his own work, but says he knew at a young age that he was destined to be “prominent.” Born in Harlem on Sept. 7, 1930, Walter Theodore Rollins was the son of a working mom and a Navy dad, both born in the Virgin Islands. His grandmother often looked after him as a child, but in many ways, he was raised by the city. As a jazz-obsessed teen, he would hound saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and persuade Thelonious Monk to sneak him into bars.
“I think I was just born at the right time and the right place because everything around me was music,” Rollins says.
Writes Dan Zak:
There is nothing to say about her handshake, her mood, her carriage. She has no smell. Her eyes, obscured by modish rectangular glasses, seem dark and colorless — until she begins to recite a verse by 8th-century poet Wang Wei to prove a point about an artist’s individual voice.
“I seem to be alone on the empty mountain,” Streep says in her silvery contralto, shifting her posture as if bracing for a blast of high-altitude air.
For an almost uncomfortable period of time.
“Yet suddenly I hear a voice. . .”
Another long pause.
Her eyes search the air. They are slate blue, sparkling.
“Is it sunshine entering a forest grove, shining back at me from the green moss?”
See photos of last year’s Kennedy Center Honors, which were awarded to television host Oprah Winfrey, musicians Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and lyricist Jerry Herman.