The nation’s capital embraced five titans of the performing arts Sunday night at the 36th annual Kennedy Center Honors, this city’s premiere assemblage of political and entertainment gentry. Shirley MacLaine, Billy Joel, Carlos Santana, jazz musician Herbie Hancock and opera singer Martina Arroyo were saluted in a typically festive ceremony that will air Dec. 29 on CBS.
A weekend filled with Honors-related activities again culminated in a gala performance at the center’s Opera House attended by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The event went on as scheduled despite a winter storm that pelted Washington throughout the day. It was preceded by a White House reception, and by a dinner Saturday night at the U.S. State Department hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry.
As usual, the gala performance was co-produced by George Stevens Jr. and son Michael, and again emphasized the element of surprise. The event’s most carefully guarded secret is a talent lineup that is undisclosed until each performer is introduced.
The first surprise was the choice of Glenn Close as emcee. The actress filled the role traditionally handled by Caroline Kennedy, the recently named U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Close introduced each celeb-filled segment for the quintet of honorees seated in the presidential box.
First up was the salute to Santana, hosted by 1989 KenCen honoree Harry Belafonte. It included a medley of Santana faves by a band led by rocker Rob Mathes that included guitarist Buddy Guy, a 2012 honoree. The set included “Corazon Espinado,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
The toast to soprano Arroyo produced an extra jolt with the appearance of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to lead the festivities. Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to join the high court, clearly savored the opportunity to laud the Latino artist. The musical tribute included a Verdi celebration featuring tenor Joseph Calleja, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and the U.S. Naval Academy’s Men’s Glee Club.
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly did the honors for Hancock, while a crew of jazz all-stars performed, highlighting his role in the second great Miles Davis quintet during the 1960s. Playing “Walkin’” and “Watermelon Man” were saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist Chick Corea, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland. Hancock’s influence in funk and hip-hop was toasted by a lineup of younger musicians that included rapper Snoop Dogg.
The segment for MacLaine was led by actress Kathy Bates, and emphasized MacLaine’s roots as a Broadway hoofer. A medley from “Pajama Game,” “Gypsy,” “Irma la Douce” and other shows included thesps Sutton Foster, Patina Miller, Karen Olivio and Anna Kendrick.
The tribute to Joel was saved for the finale, hosted by 2005 honoree Tony Bennett. A lively medley of Joel’s hits was performed by the Mathes band and an group billed as the “Piano Man Singers” that included Bennett, Garth Brooks, Brendon Urie, Don Henley and others. To Joel’s surprise and delight, the band was joined on stage by 50 Vietnam veterans and fellow motorcycle enthusiasts for the performance of “Goodnight Saigon.”
The Kennedy Center program, performed before a live audience of 2,500 and followed by a post-show banquet, stands in marked contrast to the previous night’s intimate gathering at the State Department’s posh diplomatic greeting rooms. It is there that the honorees receive their distinctive ribbons before an invited gathering of some 200 fellow artists and others, surrounded by heirlooms dating to the Revolutionary War.
Secretary Kerry, savoring his role as first-time host, said his own participation in the arts included a garage band during his youth and “two years trying to hear one song – ‘Hail to the Chief. ’” Another after-dinner tribute was given to Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, who will step down next fall following a successful 13-year tenure at the facility’s helm.
The evening’s toastmaster, actor Alan Alda, highlighted the achievements of each honoree and introduced other artists to deliver more personal perspectives. Trumpeter Blanchard led off with praises for close chum Hancock, while music mogul Clive Davis lauded Santana, a musician he discovered and signed when he was president of Columbia records. (Joel also counts as another Davis discovery.)
Opera singer Jessye Norman praised Arroya’s voice as the sound of “creamy lushness,” and reminisced about their days together at La Scala where their lifelong friendship began. Country singer Brooks offered a heartfelt toast to Joel (“you’re a genius”) while also nodding to producer Davis for signing him 40 years ago.
Actress Foster began her warm testimonial of MacLaine in lighthearted fashion: “Joan of Arc, Charlamagne, and Thomas Aquinas walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘what will it be Miss MacLaine?’” She noted that MacLaine is now one half of the only brother and sister to both receive KenCen kudos. MacLaine’s younger sibling, hyphenate Warren Beatty, received his laurel in 2004.