With $10M gift, Kennedy Center aims for younger audiences in 2011-12

By Jacqueline Trescott
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 12:09 PM

The Kennedy Center is stretching its artistic offerings in the 2011-2012 season to attract younger audiences with performers such as hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari and vocalist Nellie McKay.

But it is also offering marquee artists in plays and concerts. Among the highlights announced Tuesday by the center, are the return of award-winning actress Cate Blanchett, starring in the only U.S. engagement of "Uncle Vanya" from the Sydney Theatre Company. Holland Taylor will portray Ann Richards in a play about the Texas governor.

For those who consider Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" a seminal part of their musical lives, John Legend and The Roots, with the National Symphony Orchestra, will recreate the only time Gaye performed the entire album. That concert happened one night in 1972 at the center.

As always the crowd-pleasing musicals of Broadway will have a spotlight at the center. And the 2011-2012 schedule is extremely crowded. The center is producing its own revival of "Pal Joey," the Rogers and Hart classic of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" fame. The script, originally done by John O'Hara, is being given a new treatment by Tony Award winning playwright Terrence McNally. The center is organizing a reunion of many of the voices from its celebration 10 years ago of master lyricist Stephen Sondheim's plays. The new season will also mark the 5th anniversary of Barbara Cook's "Spotlight," a program Cook curates with talented Broadway voices. Next season she'll add her own.

The touring musicials will include "Memphis," the 25th anniversary production of "Les Miserables," as well as "Billy Elliot the Musical," "La Cage aux Folles," "Come Fly Away" and "The Addams Family."

In the 2011-2012 season the center will mount an international festival called "The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna," with appearances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Prague Philharmonia and gypsy music from Hungary's Katona Jozef Theatre. The center will also produce "Look Both Ways: Street Arts Across America," where entertainers will branch out across the region, including singer Nick Cave and dancers Project Bandaloop. The jazz programming will have a two week festival of swing music, called unsurprisingly, "Swing, Swing, Swing." The center's Grand Foyer will be opened to dancing. The jazz festival will include a tribute to the late pianist Billy Taylor with Ramsey Lewis, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Daniel Perez.

Speaking of the festival, Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president, said, "The three all have strong music traditions but the composers' music sounded different from each other. There are other connections -- Mozart was born in Austria, and debuted Don Giovanni in Prague in 1787," Kaiser said.

The outreach to younger audiences is a formal initiative, funded by a new $10 million gift from center chairman David M. Rubenstein. The Rubenstein Arts Access Program features The Millennials Project, geared to build audiences between 18 and 30 through younger acts. The gift also supports MY-TIX, which opens up the center and reduces its ticket prices, for some performances, to the underserved, underprivileged and armed services members.

As part of this effort, on September 10, the center will have a free ticket giveaway in honor of the center's 40th birthday, and a raffle for tickets to the Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

The digital generation has been missing at the center, said Rubenstein, the chairman of the center since May 2010. His new gift brings his current donation to $20 million, the largest single donor to the center. "This is a downpayment on the effort to bring younger people to the center, and also people of all walks of life," said Rubenstein. "This is designed to say we are serious about this."

The older demographic, however, is not going to be neglected. The National Symphony Orchestra is saluting the 75th birthday of go- go meister Chuck Brown at the NSO annual Labor Day concert at the U.S. Capitol. The evening is called "Legends of Washington Music: Sousa, Ellington and Brown."

The NSO, conducted by music director Christoph Eschenbach, will open its season with Joshua Bell. The orchestra will also premiere a new work by composer and musician Bill Banfield, delivered by Washington's favorite a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The NSO Pops season will feature it new principal pops conductor Steven Reineke.

In ballet, the center will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet company. The Paris Opera Ballet, who haven't performed at the center since 1993, will be among six companies appearing. Contemporary dance will be showcased through seven companies, including the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris will stage its signature: "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato."

There will be some bittersweet moments in the dance programming, said Kaiser. "The appearances by the Merce Cunningham Company will be the last performances by his company, which is closing in December," said Kaiser.

The Washington National Opera, which earlier this year became an official part of the center's affiliates, will mount five productions that it hasn't done in Washington, and also present evenings with Deborah Voigt and Angela Gheorghiu.

The performances for young audiences, which are nominated for two Helen Hayes Awards for last season, will have three commissioned works. VSA, the organization on arts and disability, will continue its playwrighting program and its annual young soloists program.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company