President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy established an enduring arts legacy that’s being celebrated at Kennedy Center from January 20, the 50th anniversary of his inauguration, through February 1.
As President Kennedy said in his legendary inaugural address, “Together let us …encourage the arts…”
On January 20, some 100 members of the Kennedy family, and President Obama heard “The Presidency of John F. Kennedy: A 50th Anniversary Celebration Opening Concert”.
Hosted by Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, the sold-out event featured many stars including Julie Andrews, Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma, Terrence McNally, Lorne Michaels, and Paul Simon.
The American Ballet Theatre performed Dying Swan from “Swan Lake”. Jackie Kennedy headed the ABT board, as Caroline Kennedy does now.
The American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School students give free performances January 19 and 20 at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and the ABT continues its participation in the celebration through January 23.
Christoph Eschenbach, Kennedy Center and National Symphony Orchestra Music Director, conducted the NSO in the world premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Remembering JFK: An American Elegy”.
The work, narrated by Morgan Freeman, includes text from President Kennedy’s speeches and writings. It was commissioned by the Kennedy Center — the National Cultural Center he urged Congress to create, and was renamed in his memory.
The elegy is performed again January 22-24, in a program including Leonard Bernstein’s “Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy”, selections from Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto.
On January 25, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax join the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio to present a tribute to cellist Pablo Casals’ 1961 White House concert.
Casals, one of the world’s most celebrated 20th century musicians, had declined for many years to play in the United States because the US had recognized the “abhorrent” regime of Francisco Franco, dictator of Casals’ native Spain. But Casals broke his embargo to play for the Kennedys at the White House.
The visit “might advance my efforts in behalf of peace and enable me to raise again with the President the question of freedom in Spain,” Casals wrote in “Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals”.
President Kennedy wrote to the maestro and termed the evening “unforgettable”, adding, “You gave honor to our country, to The White House, and to the world of music.”
On January 29-February 6, Kennedy Center presents the world premiere of “American Scrapbook: A Celebration of Verse” by Jason Williamson. The combination of poetry, movement, and music is based on works selected by Caroline Kennedy in her books “The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis” and “A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children”.
President Kennedy was the first to invite a poet, Robert Frost, to read at the inauguration, beginning another lasting tradition.
The President famously praised poetry when he dedicated a memorial to Robert Frost in 1963. “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
He’d expressed this less poetically and more practically eight years earlier to a Harvard graduating class, “…if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place …”
On January 29, a free screening of the documentary “John F. Kennedy–Years of Lightning, Day of Drums” (1965), followed by a panel discussion among artists, journalists, and policy makers about the lasting impact of the Kennedy presidency.
On February 1, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves presents a tribute to the landmark 1962 Grace Bumbry concert at the Kennedy White House.
Bumbry was the first African-American opera singer to perform at the White House. At the concert, Mrs. Kennedy sang along into the President’s ear Henri Duparc’s “L’invitation au Voyage,” Kennedy Center noted.
President Kennedy stated, less than a month before he was assassinated, the enormous importance of the arts and artists:
“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist…I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”
May we look forward to America renewing this commitment very soon, at long last.