The announcement of the 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors should appeal to regular readers of this site. All five honorees have a major connection to the world of music; and, while that connection is not always to classical performance, it involves some form of recognition of the significance of musical performance. Let me try to deal with the honorees in some attempt of order of relevance to the world about which I write.
- Yo-Yo Ma: The Kennedy Center page for Ma describes him as “our country’s cellist-in-chief as well as the music world’s most enthusiastic teacher.” This only begins to scratch the surface of his talents. More relevant may be the reference to “his voracious musical appetites and eclectic tastes.” I am beginning to doubt that there is now any genre of musical performance that Ma has not explored, and he still finds time to learn both brand-new compositions for concert performance and neglected works for the cello repertoire. (When he comes to San Francisco next week for the first subscription concert of the Centennial Season of the San Francisco Symphony, he will perform the 1940 cello concerto by Paul Hindemith.)
- Sonny Rollins: In the history of the innovations of modern jazz that took place in the middle of the twentieth century, Rollins modestly describes himself as “one of the last guys left.” This is understandable when we realize that the other “guys” he has in mind are the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane. Nevertheless, his saxophone performances have their own distinctive voice; and his approaches to improvisation all contribute to the case I keep making that jazz is “chamber music by other means.”
- Barbara Cook: There is a tendency to associate Cook with Broadway musicals. However, one of those musicals was the original production of Candide, in which she was the first Cunégonde. It goes without saying that Leonard Bernstein did not crank out Tin Pan Alley tunes for this musical. Half a century later it would be fair to say that there is no aspiring coloratura soprano (in any country) that does not at least try to add “Glitter and Be Gay” to her repertoire; and the hard truth is that every one of those aspirants can learn a thing or two from listening to Cook on the original cast recording.
- Neil Diamond: I really cannot go on about pop music they way I do about classical and jazz; but the composer of the “unofficial anthem of the Boston Red Sox” (as Ashley Southall put it in her post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times) definitely deserves an award, particularly if that award will be presented by Caroline Kennedy!
- Meryl Streep: I realize this may raise some eyebrows. However, I am not interested in her connection to music through Mamma Mia! Rather, I want to give a shout-out for a film that never gets mentioned on the Kennedy Center Web site: Music of the Heart. This was the film that Wes Craven made in 1999, drawing upon Small Wonders, a 1996 documentary about the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music. The climax of Craven’s film is a benefit concert for Opus 118 given in Carnegie Hall, in which Streep, in the role of Roberta Guaspari, who created and ran the school, shared the stage with Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Arnold Steinhardt. As the Wikipedia entry for this film observes, in preparing for her role Streep learned to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1043, his D minor concerto for two violins. (Wikipedia does not say which violin part she studied!)
This year’s honorees will be recognized at the Honors Gala on Sunday, December 4, at the Kennedy Center Opera House; and the event will subsequently be telecast on CBS on December 27.