The Kennedy Center’s annual festivals celebrating the art of a particular region or linguistic group tend to balance on the knife-edge between curating unusual and exciting work and a kind of well-meaning cultural tourism. The problem is that however well-chosen the offerings, it’s hard to convey real artistic integrity in a package as slickly entertaining as introductory evenings of highlights tend to have to be. On Tuesday night, the center opened its “Iberian Suite” festival, devoted to the art and influence of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, with an 80-minute infomercial: Present songs and excerpts and videos to well-dressed patrons, and stop in time for dinner.
Nonetheless, some formidable artists appeared on stage. The dance offerings were particularly strong. Grupo Corpo, from Brazil, mesmerized with its foot-stomping, faux-primitif, synchronized, powerful groupings of dancers in constant movement, ebbing and flowing across the stage. And Ángel Corella, a former star of the American Ballet Theater and now artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, made what was announced as his swan song: a duet with his sister, Carmen Corella, in which both demonstrated that neither has lost a whit of his or her expressive physical abilities.
Musically, you might think that classical music would be the hardest thing to present effectively in a short format. Yet after a video clip of Pablo Casals playing at the Kennedy White House, the cellist Amit Peled made a strong impression playing Bach on Casals’s own cello, which Casals’s widow, Marta Casals Istomin, lends out to younger artists to use for a year or two, and which was recently restored at Peled’s suggestion. It sounded glorious. (Casals Istomin, the Kennedy Center’s former artistic director and former longtime president of the Manhattan School of Music, was in attendance and was acknowledged from the stage, as was a representative of another kind of royalty, the recently abdicated King Juan Carlos I of Spain.)
But you would need more time to appreciate what the Arakaender Choir and Orchestra has to offer. This Bolivian group devotes itself to Baroque music manuscripts found in Bolivian missions. The group’s energy came across in the short piece it performed, but it was doubtless better represented by its own concert this week. Similarly, the singers Eugenia León and Carminho, though powerful in their own right, might be better served by more stage time; Carminho, whose style is fado, will sing with the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, while Leon is performing a tribute concert to 14 great Ibero-American singers March 14 and 15. (She was accompanied by the PostClassical Ensemble, which will have its own multimedia concert, “Iberian Mystics: The Confluence of Faiths,” on Tuesday and Wednesday.)
The evening concluded with a medley — “To dream the impossible dream” from “Man of La Mancha,” sung partly in Spanish, with choral backup, by León, Carminho and the operatic soprano Harolyn Blackwell, who will appear with Brazil’s Orquestra Jovem do Estado on March 22. It was a slick ending to a slick evening. Let the art begin.