Kennedy Center honors Streep, Ma, Diamond, Cook and Rollins

The nation’s capital embraced five titans of the performing arts Sunday night at the 34th annual Kennedy Center Honors, this city’s premiere gathering of political and entertainment nobility. Actor Meryl Streep, jazz legend Sonny Rollins, pop icon Neil Diamond, singer/thesp Barbara Cook and cellist Yo-Yo Ma were celebrated in a typically energetic affair that will be broadcast on CBS Dec. 27.

As usual, the production at the center’s Concert Hall and following gala capped a busy weekend for honorees that included a White House reception, a dinner at the U.S. State Department and other events. Honorees watching from the presidential box alongside President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were treated to segments on each that featured film biographies and entertainment by artists whose identities remained a closely guarded secret.

The salute to Streep kicked off the affair, hosted by chum Tracey Ullman. Among colleagues who sang her praises were director Mike Nichols and actors Robert DeNiro, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci. The Honors event ended a busy week in D.C. for Streep, who earlier met with numerous female members of Congress to campaign for a National Woman’s History Museum and screened her new film, “The Iron Lady.”

Nichols, who directed Streep in “Silkwood,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Heartburn” and “Angels in America,” marveled at her ability to envelop her characters. “She can handle any part thrown at her except maybe Gidget,” he said. “She’s the definition of versatility, which makes her a nightmare as a dinner partner. One night I was sitting next to Tess of the D’Ubervilles. On another, Eva Braun. Who will she be tonight? A winner definitely.”

The tribute to saxophonist Sonny Rollins, hosted by former honoree Bill Cosby, included an exceptional array of jazz greats. They included pianist/composer/band leader Herbie Hancock, sax players Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Christian McBride. A second combo featured saxophonists Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, drummer Billy Drummond and bassist Christian McBride.

An equally impressive talent lineup saluted singer Cook, the former Broadway ingenue (“Candide,” “The Music Man”) who continues to perform at age 84. The tribute led by Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick included entertainers Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Laura Osnes, Sutton Foster, Kelli O’Hara and Rebecca Luker.

As expected, The segment for singer/composer Diamond, hosted by John Lithgow, featured a rousing medley of hits. Led by the Rob Mathes Band, participants included Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Jennifer Nettles and The Sweet Carolines.

The tribute to cellist Ma ended the show in decidedly unpredictable fashion. It began with a light-hearted tribute by comedian Stephen Colbert and finished with a collage of musical genres emceed by Muppet Elmo (Kevin Clash), in a setting dubbed “Yo-Yo’s Playground.”

The segment was aimed at demonstrating the remarkable versatility of the musical genius and tireless educator. Following a performance of Schuman’s “Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op 44″ by an all-star ensemble, composer and former honoree John Williams conducted an assembly of musical groups that included bluegrass and Ma’s Silk Road Project. A rousing finale featured singer James Taylor performing a choir-backed “Here Comes the Sun.”

In its third decade, the Kennedy Center Honors continues to impress both in the consistency of its anointed honorees and participating talent, and its status as this city’s hottest ticket for audiences, artists and politicos.

Perhaps even more impressive is the longevity of the Honors weekend as a Stevens family affair. It was George Stevens Jr. who first conjured up the idea of the annual awards fund-raiser and who has produced it ever since with colleagues that now include son Michael. It remains a perfect fit for the flexible impresario able to leverage unique ties to Hollywood and D.C.

Yet as Stevens honchos the Honors production with longtime partner CBS, his wife Liz has overseen since day one an equally revered event – the previous evening’s private dinner for some 200 artists, donors and honorees past and present at the State Department’s posh diplomatic reception rooms hosted by the U.S. Secretary of State. It’s an unenviable task for some poor Kennedy Center official to say, “sorry,” each year to VIPs who simply can’t be accommodated.

“You’re not just the 1 percent for getting in this room tonight, you’re the .0001 percent,” said Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein. “So congratulate yourself for getting invited to this dinner.” He wasn’t kidding. Among attendees was Russian philanthropist Vladimir Potanin, who had just donated $5 million to the Kennedy Center.

Honorees receive their festive ribbons in tableside ceremonies following the dinner. On hand were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who dashed back to D.C. between diplomatic missions to attend the event. She was accompanied by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, a not-so-renowned sax player who personally offered the evening’s tribute to “colleague” Rollins.

Singer Renee Fleming emceed the after-dinner remarks, noting that each of this year’s honorees are “still at the top of their games.” Singer Audra McDonald praised Cook for being a “selfless mentor to me and many others,” while songwriter Alan Bergman saluted honoree Diamond. Actor Bill Irwin extemporized about honoree Ma. “He’s not only an extraordinary experimenter, he’s a stud muffin,” he said.

Writer/director Nora Ephron ended her effusive praise for honoree Streep with the evening’s best line. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Madame Secretary,” she said to Clinton after listing Streep’s impressive resume of important female roles. “When you met with her tonight, and I imagine you thought she was charming, she was just soaking you up. Someday, you will see her in a movie about your life and discover the mortifying truth that she is better at you than you are.”

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