Bettye LaVette (Scott Suchman via The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)
Bettye LaVette (Scott Suchman via The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)

After remaining mostly dark and silent for the past 18 months, the lights finally went on and a jubilant crowd returned to the nation’s foremost cultural center, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – just in time for the Center’s official kickoff to its 50th season – with a spectacular program of dance, music and heartfelt reflections.

The 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, held on Sept. 14, got off to a slow start with new protocol which included masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination as well as the added safety precaution of metal detectors, but the delay would be quickly forgotten after the curtain rose.

Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein, clearly excited with the prospect of welcoming a live audience to the Center, recounted the history of the venue named in honor of President John F. Kennedy, which has welcomed over 100 million visitors, featured 80,000 ticketed events, provided education for youth and invited its audiences to experience the very best from among the performing arts world on its stages.

Christian McBride and Dianne Reeves (Scott Suchman via The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)

The audience rose to its feet when a surprise guest came on stage to share additional words of welcome – First lady Jill Biden. Dazzling in a floor-length purple dress, she was a hit with the crowd as were the daughter and granddaughter of the late president, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Rose Schlossberg, respectably.

Hosted by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, the concert, which featured the National Symphony Orchestra, echoed “An American Pageant for the Arts” – the 1962 event conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Like the 1962 concert, the 50th-anniversary celebration served as a tribute to the many performance traditions whose roots represent our nation’s diverse, cultural heritages and which, over time, have become essential elements within the American tapestry.

To be clear, many of those included in the roster of artists who shared their gifts rarely represent those whose names can be routinely found in heavy circulation on America’s more popular radio stations.

But each artist – from Common, Renée Fleming, Ben Folds and the Punch Brothers – to Keb’ Mo’, Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves, Ray Chen and Bettye LaVette – offered phenomenal performances of vocal and instrumental compositions, orchestral masterpieces and choreography taken from the Broadway classics. Even more amazing, many of the artists stepped out of their usual elements and genres to join their colleagues in newly-arranged compositions that were nothing short of spectacular.

While I hesitate to list my favorites from the evening, this writer must give special accolades to the soul singer Bettye LaVette who tore up the stage with “Your Turn to Cry,” with backup vocals and instruments provided by Rachael Price, Gaby Moreno, Chris Thile; and Ben Folds (piano), Christian McBride (bass), Keb’ Mo’ (guitar) and Carl Allen (drums). LeVette then offered a moving, solo interpretation of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney classic, “Blackbird.”

John Manzari and Leo Manzari (Scott Suchman via The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)

Tears came to my eyes as Kelli O’Hara and the incomparable Renée Fleming put their unique touch on one of America’s favorite ballads, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

And when Dianne Reeves, a prima donna in the jazz world, bent notes and moved effortlessly up and down the scale in the Duke Ellington and Irving Mills classic, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),” I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Reeves would be backed by an ensemble of musical masters that included McBride and Allen, along with Chen on violin and Christian Sands on piano.

But more was to come before the song’s final measure as a team of dancers took us back to the swing era featuring tap dancers John Manzari and Leo Manzari and Lindy Hoppers LaTasha Barnes, Tyedric Hill, Gabriella Cook, Brian Lawton, Breai Mason Campbell and Robert White.

Common took the lead in the concert’s finale, “Glory,” accompanied by an ensemble whose performance brought the audience to its feet for another of several moments when the crowd roared its appreciation throughout the evening.

If you missed the show, you have my sympathies. But there’s hope. You can experience the concert on Oct. 1 when it can be viewed on PBS.

What a night and what a beginning for what promises to be a season you don’t want to miss!

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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