How do you commemorate John F. Kennedy in a performing arts festival? All this season, the Kennedy Center has been trying to answer that question with a series of performances honoring Kennedy’s centennial that often seem only tenuously linked to Kennedy.
“I don’t care if [audiences] don’t get it,” Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president, told The Washington Post earlier this year about the connection of some of the performances to Kennedy’s legacy. “I don’t need to them to. I know it’s going to soak in, and that’s why we’re doing it.”
But starting Thursday, the Kennedy Center is co-presenting a festival that does proceed directly from a Kennedy initiative. The choral festival “Serenade” is coming to the Kennedy Center this year with choruses from many of the countries where the Peace Corps, which Kennedy established by executive order in 1961, is active — Zimbabwe, Ghana and Mongolia among them.
“Whether the Kennedy Center was going to go for this or not, my goal this year was to celebrate Kennedy,” says Neeta Helms, the founder of the music presenter and travel agency Classical Movements in Alexandria, Va., who is mounting Serenade in the Washington area for the seventh time. When the Kennedy Center proved enthusiastic, the festival expanded to a week. Six days of free concerts at the Kennedy Center will culminate in an extravaganza with 16 choruses in the Concert Hall on July 3.
Serenade will also give eight concerts at other venues, many with a connection to Kennedy — like Trinity Church in Georgetown, where he worshiped, and where, on July 2, Latvian Voices and the Escolania de Montserrat, Europe’s oldest boy’s choir, will perform. Why Latvia? Kennedy went there while a student at Harvard. Why the Escolania de Montserrat? They will sing a work written for them by Pablo Casals, the legendary cellist who played for Kennedy in the White House in 1961.
The festival honors all kinds of Kennedy connections. “I said, ‘Did Kennedy ever go to Baltimore?’ ” Helms says. “I found he once landed a helicopter at a place called Patterson Park” — a park that now hosts summer music concerts; one of the concert organizers was herself in the Peace Corps. Serenade’s concert there July 2 features choruses from China, Panama and Zimbabwe, as well as a Maine-based chorus called Pihcintu, made up of girls who are refugees from countries around the world.
Helms commissioned 11 world premieres for the festival from composers in Haiti, India, Latvia and elsewhere, but only nine will be performed. Despite Classical Movements’s years of experience getting visas to and from tricky regions for a range of major orchestras and choruses (including the National Symphony Orchestra), two groups were unable to swing it. “Our Moroccan choir has not got visas,” Helms said. “It was ambitious to think that seven Moroccan men were going to get visas in this day and age.”
She is already looking ahead to the 2018 Serenade. “Next year,” she says, “I want to do Mandela.”
Serenade takes place June 27 to July 4 with daily free concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stages at 6 p.m. and other concerts, also mainly free, across the region. Advance registration or ticketing is required for the concert in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on July 3 and for some of the other concerts. For a complete listing, go to @classicalmovements at medium.com .