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
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. …