Kennedy Center’s lucky pre-shutdown timing: Makeover for concert hall, NSO black-tie gala

September 30, 2013

Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein had a long list of people to thank at the National Symphony Orchestra’s 83rd season opener. He started by pointing out the fresh coat of paint in the Concert Hall, the first renovation in 16 years.


Music director Christoph Eschenbach at the National Symphony Orchestra’s season opener Sunday night. (Scott Suchman/National Symphony Orchestra)

“I want to thank the federal government for paying for it,” Rubenstein told the audience Sunday night. “And I want to thank the painters for finishing before tomorrow night.”

The timing, he admitted to laughter, was dumb luck. The gala concert was scheduled more than a year ago, so the $1 million repair and paint job (white, silver, and gold, which nicely matched the NSO’s gleaming new organ) was completed over the summer — long before a government shutdown threatened the national arts complex.

Yo-Yo Ma and Cameron Carpenter. (credit: Margot Ingoldsby Schulman)
Yo-Yo Ma and Cameron Carpenter. (Margot Schulman)

The Kennedy Center has an unusual relationship with the feds: The government pays for the building, grounds and upkeep; private donations pay for performances, staff and other programs, explained spokesman John Dow. The shutdown contingency plans allow concerts, shows and educational programs to continue, but tours will be suspended and the building closed until an hour before evening performances.

Of the center’s 1,200 full and part-time employees, about 50 are directly impacted by the government going out of business.

WASHINGTON DC: SEPTEMBER 29: HANDOUT IMAGE - Supreme Court Justice John Roberts (left) chats with The Carlyle Group co-founder David M. Rubenstein at the first performance of the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2013-2014 season. (Courtesy of Margot Ingoldsby Schulman) For one time use only. No sales.
Supreme Court Justice John Roberts chats with Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein at the gala. (Margot Schulman)

Which gave the annual NSO gala a certain fin de siècle vibe: VIP patrons (including Justices John Roberts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy) in gowns and tuxedos, a post-performance dinner and dancing in a candlelit tent, music lovers clustered around cellist Yo-Yo Ma, organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter (steampunk classical in a mohawk, feathered Victorian cravat and rhinestone boots), and conductor Christoph Eschenbach. The gala, chaired by former General Dynamics president Jay Johnson and Sydney Johnson, raised $1.3 million for the NSO’s educational programs.

Oh, and Rubenstein has a proposal for those warring factions on the Hill. “As all of you have heard, music can be beautiful,” he said. “It can soothe people and make them feel better. So we’d like to invite all 535 members of Congress to come tomorrow for a concert. . .Hopefully afterward something good can come from it.”


The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall is overtaken by scaffolding for its recent repainting. (The Kennedy Center)

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Amy Argetsinger | September 30, 2013