This year’s ceremony will be broadcast tonight (Tuesday, Dec. 27), and it will be interesting to see whether the editors at CBS can manage to give cohesion to an event that tried to do credit to everyone from the Eagles to Martha Argerich and that, in person on Dec. 4, ended up being just the slightly incoherent hodgepodge of genres and styles that one might expect.
Like so many initiatives in the “arts” today, this one looked better on paper than it did in person. The show’s producers enthusiastically crossed genres: Yo-Yo Ma (a past honoree) paid tribute to James Taylor, Jeff Goldblum introduced Argerich, and Juanes sang “Hotel California” for the Eagles. While a nice idea, it often muted the emotional impact when the connection between performer and honoree seemed tenuous (it was not clear what, if anything, linked Goldblum and Argerich).
And the rhythm, throughout, seemed a little off; the producers evidently had trouble anticipating emotional climaxes. “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Freedom Highway,” sung by Bonnie Raitt and Elle King, were not as stirring a finale for Staples as one might have expected. And it was a waste of the brilliant pianist Yuja Wang to have her play Piazzolla’s “Grand Tango” with orchestra rather than something that would really have wowed the audience — as both Wang and Argerich are wont to do.
But my keenest experience of the Kennedy Center Honors this year had to do with the marginalization of the high arts. This is not usually my position: I have no problem celebrating the artistry of popular culture, placing Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” above the level of many works of contemporary art music or recognizing the quality of “The Wire” and other high-level made-for-television series. And I have been comfortable with the idea that in what is essentially a knockoff awards ceremony, the Kennedy Center should seek to honor the best of American art. But fully recognizing just how marginalized my field is, both before and during the ceremony, was sobering.
For me, the highlight of the night was Itzhak Perlman (a past honoree) and Yefim Bronfman playing the Allegro vivace of Beethoven’s 8th violin sonata with an appropriately strong piano part. But it was impossible not to see that the classical music segment stuck out like a sore thumb, an obligatory oddity in an event that is patently craving popular attention. And therein lies the rub for arts in general. We all know there’s a difference between excellence and popular approval, but this ceremony isn’t sure it wants to recognize it.