Kennedy Center's 25th Anniversary Show Celebrates Arts, America

Article excerpt

A SINGLE center as the focal point of a nation's culture is a concept that immigrants from Europe didn't bring with them.

The founding fathers rejected court operas and orchestras - along with the kings and emperors whose entertainment they largely were.

Thus it's not surprising that the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the six-theater, four-stage palace of the arts on the Potomac in Washington, D.C., is a mere quarter-century old.

And the newness of the idea of a national center for the arts makes the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy Center an appropriate occasion for a marathon celebration of the arts in America.

On Sunday (7 p.m. on Channel 9), the public-television audience gets to enjoy half of the four-hour birthday party staged in the center on April 27.

It's an almost all-American show, and even when the program does reach back in history for the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah," the old war horse is given shining new armor in a soulful arrangement by Mervyn Warren, performed by Visions, a choral ensemble in colorful African dress.

A happy sense of history runs throughout the program, produced for PBS by Gary Smith and Fred A. Rappoport.

Despite its close association with the assassinated president whose n ame it bears, the center was conceived during Dwight Eisenhower's administration and opened on Jan. 12, 1971, when Lyndon Johnson was president.

In its essence, however, the center is today a major monument to Kennedy's dream of a "New Frontier."

Sen. Edward Kennedy is present - both on film from the '71 opening night and in person last April - to affirm his brother's - conviction that "the arts are the soul of our civilization."

And the program preserves Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's opening night quotation of the late president's feeling that "poetry is greater than power" and that "a great nation will be remembered by its art," not by its battlefield victories.

Although the fanfare for the evening comes from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," it's Kathleen Battle who sets the tone for the celebration with "Take My Mother Home," Toni Morrison's text set by Andre Previn.

And another great American soprano comes to the stage of the center's opera house to conclude the program with two excerpts from scores by Leonard Bernstein: Harolyn Blackwell sings "A Simple Song" from Bernstein's "Mass," composed to open the center, and "Make Our Garden Grow" from "Candide."

Yet Blackwell is looking forward to the PBS broadcast, for as one of the many dozens performers in the gala, she saw nothing but her share of the show in April. …