Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 2009 Kennedy Center Honors

This year's five Kennedy Center Honorees--Mel Brooks, Grace Bumbry, Dave Brubeck, Robert De Niro, and Bruce Springsteen--represented the kind of eclecticism that these selections have manifested over the years. It does seem that the producers are having a harder time coming up with performances truly responsive to the particular outstanding characteristics of the honorees, but all in all, it was a pleasant evening. I'm also continually amazed--and pleased--that tv is willing to put on without censoring the production numbers of "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers. It's also something in D.C. when controversial people get picked for things like this: I recall watching the Pete Seeger documentary on PBS last year and hoping he might be selected, only to learn a few moments later that he had been so Honored in 1994. No one ever looked less comfortable in black tie than Pete. At the other end of the spectrum, Charlton Heston was included in 1997, well after he had become a prominent right-wing spokesman.

That said, a word is needed about one of this year's Honorees, because her career peaked so many years ago that I suspect few watching had much awareness of how great she was. I refer of course to Grace Melzia Bumbry, who built a stellar reputation in the leading opera houses of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s before being acclaimed here in her own country. It was wonderful seeing the black-and-white tapes of her performance at the White House during the Kennedy years.

Bumbry excelled in almost every kind of opera: the bio film at the Honors began by showing how she conquered Bayreuth with her Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser, a role until then reserved--even after World War II--for "Nordic" performers. You could also see from the old footage how absolutely beautiful she was. She was one of the pathbreakers in showing the operatic world that singers could look the part in terms of increasing their dramatic effect.

One had to put the operatic equivalent of two and two together watching the program, however, top discern one of the most amazing aspects of Bumbry's magnificent career. They had clips of her singing the Habanera from Carmen and Vissi d'arte from Tosca. The first is probably the greatest role on the operatic stage for a mezzo-soprano; the latter is a major role for a soprano--Bumbry could do both. Not only that, the Tannhauser excerpt showed she could sing Wagner as well. This demonstrates a range of capabilities that should amaze anyone. And everything she sang was performed in a first-rate manner.

As for the others, Jon Stewart probably was the funniest in his presentation of The Boss. Who knew that the maestro of the Daily Show was from Jersey? Herbie Hancock was able to convey some of the sheer pleasure that all the performing musicians exuded as they played variations on Brubeck's Take Five. Carl Reiner, the straight man for the 200-Year-Old Man routine, was totally straight in introducing Mel Brooks, who was starting to look more like his 2000-year-old character. Meryl Streep, whom I just saw in It's Complicated over the weekend, presented De Niro and made us realize that it is only a matter of time before she is Honored at this event.

Some years ago, I attended this event on a couple of occasions, accompanying my father, who was invited in his capacity of supervisor of benefits for the entertainment unions. They used to have the five Honorees appear together on the stage in those days and it wasn't a great idea--James Cagney, near the end of his life when Honored, was only slightly more mobile than the ageless but 95-year-old leading lady Lynn Fontanne, and one longed for the time when he would dance up the side of the proscenium in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

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