In a way, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Lincoln Center, and the observance will be properly festive on the PBS "25th Anniversary Fanfare" tonight (9 p.m., Channel 26 and Maryland Public TV). But the observance is, if not premature, perhaps a bit rushed. Appropriately, the show itself is also a bit rushed; there is so much rich material to pour into two hours that little time is given to savor anything at full length and in a leisurely style.
In 1959, the only performances on the site of Lincoln Center (previously a clump of decaying tenements called "Lincoln Square") were being given by steam shovels, bulldozers and the kind of people who speak at cornerstone-laying ceremonies. The music and dancing moved in a bit later: the Philharmonic in 1962, the City Opera and Ballet companies in 1964, the Metropolitan Opera in 1966. Tonight's retrospective, devoted almost entirely to things that have already gone out on television, sometimes looks like a lengthy commercial for Lincoln Center -- complete with thinly veiled pitches for contributions.
But the commercial is pushing a first-class product. This is evident even in those snippets that have been cut to about a minute because of time limitations: Andre' Watts playing a bit of "Rhapsody in Blue," James Galway racing through part of Bach's Suite No. 2 for flute and strings, the New York City Ballet dancing to a bit of "Rosenkavalier" music in "Vienna Waltzes." Other selections are given at greater length, including whole movements from Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, a substantial segment of Stravinsky's "Apollo" with Peter Martins, a "Lucia" Sextet from the City Opera and Beverly Sills singing (exquisitely) Adolphe Adam's Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman" -- an insert in the singing lesson scene from the "Barber of Seville."
The first half of the program is dominated by Itzhak Perlman as violinist, baritone (in a scene from "Tosca" with Pavarotti) and impromptu comedian. A historic moment is caught on film when he breaks a string during a performance and tells the audience "We're going to try for the world record of changing an E string."
The second half is dominated by the Metropolitan Opera (particularly by Leontyne Price and Placido Domingo) in a dazzling series of operatic productions.