By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 8:51 PM
The Kennedy Center is stretching its artistic offerings in the 2011-12 season to attract younger audiences with performers such as hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari and vocalist Nellie McKay.
The announcement that rockers OK Go, with indie band Pomplamoose, will help celebrate the 14th anniversary of the center's Millennium Stage generated some positive chatter at a news conference on Tuesday. The OK Go group won a Grammy for the video "Here It Goes Again," a choreographed product watched by more than 50 million viewers.
The center is also offering marquee artists in plays and concerts. Among the highlights: the return of award-winning actress Cate Blanchett, starring in the only U.S. engagement of "Uncle Vanya" from the Sydney Theatre Company; John Legend and the Roots, with the National Symphony Orchestra, will re-create the only time Marvin Gaye performed all the songs from his "What's Going On" album, a concert that happened at the center in 1972.
The theater program includes a portrait of Ann Richards, the late Texas governor, who will be played by Holland Taylor, a cast member of the much-talked-about television series "Two and a Half Men." This theatrical spotlight on a legendary government figure indicates that the center might be establishing some firm ownership of the stage biographies of people such as the late justice Thurgood Marshall, embodied recently by Laurence Fishburne.
As always, the crowd-pleasing musicals of Broadway will have a spotlight at the center. And the 2011-12 schedule is replete with famous songs. The center is producing its own revival of "Pal Joey," the Rodgers 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 fifth anniversary of Barbara Cook's Spotlight series, a program Cook curates with talented Broadway voices. Next season she'll add her own.
The touring musicals will include "Memphis" and 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 2011-12 season, the center will mount an international festival called "The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna," with appearances by the Vienna Philharmonic, the Prague Philharmonia and Gypsy music from Hungary's Katona Jozsef Theatre. The National Symphony Orchestra will perform no fewer than six programs out of the classical music canon, and soprano Anne Schwanewilms and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann will make their debuts with the orchestra.
Speaking of the tri-city 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."
The center will also produce "Look Both Ways: Street Arts Across America," another hook for younger audiences, where entertainers will branch out across the region, including visual artist 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 converted into a dance hall. The jazz festival will include a tribute to the late pianist Billy Taylor with Ramsey Lewis, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Danilo Perez.
The outreach to younger audiences is a formal initiative, funded by a new $10 million gift from the center's 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 members of the armed services. Another component is a partnership with the USO to give children of military families, new to the region, tickets to share with a new friend in their new neighborhood.
As part of this effort, on Sept. 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, who's been chairman since May 2010. This gift brings his current donation to $20 million, making him the largest single donor to the center. "This is a down payment on the effort to bring younger people to the center, and also people of all walks of life," Rubenstein said. "This is designed to say we are serious about this."
The older demographic, however, will not be neglected. The National Symphony Orchestra is saluting the 75th birthday of go-go meister Chuck Brown at its annual Labor Day concert at the 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 violinist Joshua Bell. The orchestra will also premiere a new work by composer and musician Bill Banfield, delivered by Washington's favorite a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. The NSO Pops season will feature new Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke.
The orchestra is attracting some notable names, including guest conductor Lorin Maazel, pianist Peter Serkin and pianist Nelson Freire, making his NSO debut in Brahms's Second Piano Concerto.
Ute Lemper, the actress and singer, will appear with the Vogler Quartet, and two young groups, the Puella Trio from Prague and the Morgenstern Trio from the United States, will appear at the center.
In ballet, the center will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet company. The Paris Opera Ballet, which hasn't performed at the center since 1993, will be among the six companies appearing. "We tried for 10 years and finally got them," Kaiser said. 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, too. "The appearances by the Merce Cunningham Company will be the last performances by his company, which is closing in December," Kaiser said.
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 playwriting program and its annual young soloists program.
Staff writer Anne Midgette contributed to this article.