The arts are an essential part of society. The arts are what a society is remembered by. Those were the leitmotifs, sounded again and again, of the Kennedy Center's Thursday-night gala concert to open a two-week mini-festival commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the president whose name the center bears.
Yet the arts have a questionable role at this kind of gala. When your audience includes 300 mayors (in town for the U.S. Conference of Mayors) and 90-some members of the Kennedy family; when your emcees include Terrence McNally, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols; and when your performers include Yo-Yo Ma, Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon, the actual art tends to get pushed aside, served up in snippets the size of variety-show acts.
That is all the more true when your keynote speaker is the president of the United States. Barack Obama, in a prepared and slightly routine speech, drew implicit and not-so-implicit parallels between John F. Kennedy's presidency and his own. "I can only imagine how he must have felt entering the Oval Office in turbulent times," he said, getting a big laugh and a burst of applause - although after his descriptions of Kennedy as devoted father, inspiring speaker and bearer of a message of hope, the dots hardly needed further connecting.
As for the arts, the evening was designed as a celebration, first and foremost. Its second function was as a placeholder, demonstrating the symbolic value of what we call the arts, rather than their full impact. Even if Yo-Yo Ma is playing the cello beautifully, yet another performance of "The Dying Swan" - danced by Veronika Part of American Ballet Theatre - reflects little of great social moment. It is simply, undemandingly, lovely and not too long.
In an effort to be all things to all people, these events also become an odd melange of styles and levels of expertise. You have students from the Harvard Glee Club on the one hand, Simon on the other. Now Hancock, Esperanza Spalding and Jack DeJohnette in a vivid jazz combo, now Harolyn Blackwell in an alarmingly schmaltzy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangement of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Now you have the tap-dancing, teenage local whiz kids the Manzari Brothers (John and Leo); now, David Rubenstein, the Kennedy Center's president, giving the obligatory speech of individual thanks that makes so many Kennedy Center gala events feel slightly like meetings of a Rotary Club.
Each excerpt exists in its own artistic atmosphere. You could say that, artistically, the evening's focus was the world premiere of Peter Lieberson's "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)," commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach, whose mien at his entrance brought to mind the words of another American president: Speak softly, and carry a big stick (or baton).
Eschenbach certainly put his heart into a piece that worked hard, and succeeded, at sounding instantly well known. While Morgan Freeman narrated excerpts of Kennedy's speeches, the orchestra passed around a Coplandesque theme that had the warm American familiarity of worn jeans, a broken-in baseball glove and wind off the prairie. Lieberson kept a balance between the elegiac and the heroic (two time-honored functions of this kind of occasional music), creating a score that was stirring, not offensively derivative, and laid out so clearly that, with Eschenbach's help, you could hear the demarcations between each section - from the rousing opening (slightly marred at the very beginning by unsteadiness in the trumpet's call) through the expected slow movement to a coda in which the music struck out in a new direction, conjuring up a calmer, brighter universe in response to the words about world peace.
Does it say anything about our society now? No. Is it a fine piece with crowd appeal that will be suitable for Presidents' Days and other orchestral commemorations for years to come? Indubitably. (The NSO will play it three more times at its subscription concerts this weekend, and it will be included on the recording that the orchestra is issuing in May.)
Yet a more immediate highlight of the program came when Simon, 69, came out with his guitar and the polymathic string player Mark Stewart (here on cello) to sing a song he wrote just months after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, "The Sound of Silence." Simon's voice is miraculously unchanged; his singing was like a time capsule opening on another era, and the moment said a lot more about our lives, or the time between the Kennedy era and now, than anything else on the program.
The festival continues through Feb. 6.