Are you thinking of how to bring in 2021? Will it be a virtual Watch Night service? Will it be a virtual Zoom gathering? The New Year’s Eve PBS special, “United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America,” allows viewers to snuggle up in comfortable attire with their favorite beverages while viewing some of the greatest artists perform music from multiple genres.
The event was filmed at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts encouraging the nation to come together and celebrate our strength as we welcome the New Year. The 90-minute program airs Thursday, Dec. 31 from 8-9:30 p.m. ET and again from 9:30-11 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video App.
What should be an emotional portion of “United in Song” will be an original recitation performed in the slave cemetery at Mount Vernon. The piece was written by award-winning actor, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith. She will deliver it in collaboration with celebrated mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves singing the spiritual “Deep River.”
“I prayed and I thanked them for their lives and for what they gave with their lives that enabled me to be there for a PBS special,” said Graves about singing in the Mount Vernon slave cemetery. “I then asked that they be with me and sing with me. It was a moment of reverence and respect for all of these people of whom we are the daughters.”
Many will remember that Graves sang “Deep River” at the memorial service of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Graves knows that a lot of people probably do not know there is a slave cemetery on the property. A socially distanced taping was conducted for which Smith came to the historic site from her home on the West Coast.
Other artists scheduled to appear are District-area resident and rising opera star Soloman Howard; Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton; multi-Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell; world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming; multi-Grammy- and Tony Award-nominated artist Josh Groban; recording artist and Broadway star Morgan James; 26-time Grammy and Latin Grammy Award winner Juanes; Grammy Award-winning and world-renowned artist Patti LaBelle; internationally celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma; six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald; two-time Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell; world-renowned pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet; alongside The American Pops Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Luke Frazier. Performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestra JoAnn Falletta, were filmed in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center and are also part of this special broadcast.
Robert Pullen, executive producer of “United in Song” built on an original idea presented by David Rubinstein, philanthropist and host of “The David Rubenstein Show” on Bloomberg. Rubinstein’s vision was for a one-night-only, absolute best of classical music for the next generation to enjoy. Scheduling big-name stars was becoming a problem along with the inability to move forward because of COVID-19. With a diverse group of performers in mind Rubinstein’s idea was reshaped through conversations with Pullen.
“Wouldn’t it be incredible to have an evening of music celebrating the arts that actually is bringing us together. Isn’t that what the arts do, bring people together?” said Rubinstein to Pullen. This is how the title of the event came to be and how the music genres were expanded beyond classical music.
“We brought in Broadway, R&B, gospel, and the whole nine yards,” Pullen continued, “What better symbol of resilience than Mount Vernon to show where we have come in more than 200 years?”
Artists and lovers of the arts know how difficult it has been to safely produce shows, mount concerts, and keep galleries open. Artists are willing to work with Pullen and Maestro Frazier because they know how to set up a safe working environment.
“It was great to hear from Audra McDonald and others about how comfortable we made it for them,” said Pullen. “That validated what we were trying to do.”