Kennedy Center celebrates 50th anniversary of inauguration with music, dance

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 9:09 PM

On that Friday in January 1961, Robert Frost was unable to read the poem he had created for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy because of the sun's glare and the cold wind blowing across the east front of the Capitol. So he put the typewritten sheet aside and recited "The Gift Outright" from memory.

On that day of new beginnings, American culture stood side by side with politics. Frost was joined by contralto Marian Anderson, who sang the national anthem. Frank Sinatra hosted the evening's traditional gala.

A tone was set that is still celebrated by artists who regard the Kennedy administration as the beginning of official recognition of the country's artistic life. Over the next few weeks, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a living memorial to the 35th president, will recall the cultural moments of his term.

Thursday night, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy inauguration, the center will open its commemoration with a concert that includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, singer-songwriter Paul Simon, soprano Harolyn Blackwell, pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock and the American Ballet Theatre. The National Symphony Orchestra will introduce a composition by Peter Lieberson - which includes text from Kennedy's speeches and writings - narrated by actor Morgan Freeman. Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols will host. Ticket prices were $49 to $150 - the event sold out immediately.

"I think it is wonderful that this living memorial has stepped forward in such an amazing way to pay tribute to the arts legacy that was so important to my parents," said Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. "They celebrated American civilization when they were in the White House and raised awareness of it."

About 85 members of the Kennedy family are expected to join her during Thursday's concert.

Another Kennedy reunion, unrelated to the gala, will take place when some Kennedy staffers will reminisce about their time in the White House at a luncheon Thursday.

David Rubenstein, chairman of the center's board - who underwrote the events with his wife, Alice - said 50 years is a benchmark for the "people alive who remember it fondly." Rubenstein said: "The administration, while it was cut short, gave an optimism for the future. It reminds people of their happy days and brings back happy memories for people like me."

Two of the historic White House recitals will be re-created in the next two weeks.

In addition to performing Thursday, Ma will play on Jan. 25 the music that cellist Pablo Casals performed in November 1961. His widow, Marta Casals Istomin, remembers it as more than a musical evening. Casals had refused to play in countries that recognized the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but the cellist admired the young president.

"Casals had silenced his cello. He had to think about the invitation. But he had written a letter saying he supported Kennedy and said he was a hope for the world," Istomin said. "He thought about the importance of speaking to the president about Spain and his ideas about culture. Kennedy had said the arts would be part of a free society."

The evening became a hallmark of the administration's emphasis on the arts. "It was a moment of magic," Istomin said. The audience included Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Eugene Ormandy and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. "There was electricity in the air. There were all these personalities from the arts and music. Everyone knew what the evening signified." The audience was quiet during the recital, but Istomin said everyone was crying by the end.

It's fitting that Ma would perform Casals's program. Ma was invited to play for Casals when he was 5- or 6-years-old, after Casals heard about his talents from Ma's uncle, also a musician, Istomin said.

The second historic recital took place in February 1962, when mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry became the first African American opera singer to perform at the White House. On Feb. 1, an equally celebrated African American mezzo-soprano, Denyce Graves, will sing selections from Bumbry's 1962 performance.

The NSO also will perform the Lieberson work during its subscription series, narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss, along with Bernstein's "Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy."

"When you look, there was a series of very potent things [the Kennedys] did for the arts," said Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president, who started planning the celebration four or five years ago. "The Casals and Bumbry concerts made news. Then Jackie giving her televised tour of the White House is something many people remember."

Other administrations had welcomed artists - Casals had played for Theodore Roosevelt - but technological advances with television and film made the Kennedy events accessible to wider audiences.

Caroline Kennedy, in a telephone interview, said that she does not remember those evenings. "It is more that I heard about them all my life, especially from my mother. For me, these concerts are reconnecting to those memories with her and hearing what are great works of art."

Jacqueline Kennedy was influenced by the status given to artists in Europe. "She really always felt when she visited Europe, she liked the way they celebrated artists," her daughter said. "She elevated American decorative arts and painting and the artist. It is wonderful that in the White House that has all continued and grown."

Dance and poetry were particular joys of her mother, Kennedy said. "I was allowed to go to the dress rehearsals" of the American Ballet Theatre. "I was too young to stay up. Then I had to write a report on the plot of 'Swan Lake.' I would peek and then I wrote the report for my parents." Her mother was on the board of the ballet company for many years, and the ABT school is named after her. The company is performing some of her favorites this week.

President Kennedy's speeches often underscored the need for the arts in everyone's life. He said: "When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence."

With both parents intense admirers of words, Caroline Kennedy has emphasized the power of verse in two anthologies of poetry. The center has commissioned "American Scrapbook: A Celebration of Verse," a play based on the two collections. Aimed at young audiences, the tributes will be presented Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 and 6.

Today's artists, Kaiser said, were more than cooperative in planning the events. "They understood the moment in history we are celebrating, a moment that showed the love of art and the humanities."

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