Celebrating 50 years of world-class art, innovation, education and community, the Kennedy Center hosted a magical night of music, dance and even spoken word poetry for its 50th anniversary celebration concert on September 14 — and suddenly, to those of us in the audience, all felt right in the world.
The concert hall was electric from the star-studded lineup, with appearances ranging from first lady Dr. Jill Biden for opening remarks to Oscar- and Grammy-winning artist Common, who closed the show with an inspiring, uplifting two-song performance that included “Black America Again.” Artists like Kennedy Center Hip Hop Culture Council Member Robert Glasper and rapper D Smoke exuded musical relevance with “Common Sense” while guitarist Grammy Award-winning guitarist Keb’ Mo’ and Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride honored musicians who came before them with Leadbelly’s “Black Betty.”
The audience roared for six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald as she gracefully stepped onstage to host this one-of-a-kind show directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. But let it be known that this nearly three-hour production had something for everyone to enjoy, and more than enough for my desperate-for-live-concerts, music-loving soul.
If you have never seen the National Symphony Orchestra perform before, this was the night to develop an unwavering appreciation and totally swoon. Conductors JoAnn Falletta, Steven Reineke and Thomas Wilkins led this group with heaps of bright energy, filling the room with tranquility and light. Luckily for us, this also meant ample solos from the prodigious and expressive Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen, who wowed at every given moment and sent the audience into a collective chuckle when flirting with soul icon Bettye LaVette.
With the orchestra playing behind most of the night’s vocal performances, this Kennedy Center experience was elevated into unmatched, intimate concert territory. When Broadway and opera star Kelli O’Hara enchanted us with Sondheim’s “Take Me to the World” from “Evening Primrose,” I immediately got goosebumps that turned straight into happy tears when Darren Criss came onstage right after to serenade us with a new rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Misérables,” with just his guitar and smooth tenor voice to guide us.
The musical theatre geek in me was over the moon when Criss came back onstage minutes later to join TikTok sensations Emily Bear and Abigail Barlow for a duet of their song “Oceans Away” from their newly released album “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical.” I followed the duo, known as Barlow & Bear, for eight months on the Internet as they wrote and composed the album right in front of our eyes in a myriad of encapsulating TikTok videos, so seeing them perform lyrics that have been stuck in my head for months for the first time in person was a real treat.
While it felt as though this celebration was highlighting luminaries of the present and future, it just as much recognized soulful powerhouses who have been performing for decades, such as jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who scatted and belted Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” alongside McBride and Chen on the violin, and Lavette, who put tears in our eyes with her powerful cover of George Harrison’s “Blackbird.”
Among some of the powerhouse vocalists mentioned above, there was incredible tap dancing, intense ballet choreography with dramatic lifts, modern bluegrass and Americana vibes from Punch Brothers combined with powerful blues vocals from Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price, and a moving spoken word piece called “Dignity as Currency” from Marc Bamuthi Joseph, vice president and artistic director of social impact at the Kennedy Center.
The evening ended on a high note — literally, from Broadway star Joshua Henry’s talented voice — with Common’s (and John Legend’s) brilliant Academy Award-winning song “Glory” from the movie “Selma.” While Common rapped in honor of the memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, among others, the cast from David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power” sang the heart-clenching “glories” in the background.
Of course, there was nothing but respect and applause for the uplifting message and powerful tribute from this finale group. The praise may have only been louder when Henry had brought down the house moments earlier with a fiery rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
The way these artists and musicians played off each other with such effortless musicality, you’d think this star-studded lineup performs together every night — the sign of a brilliantly curated grouping thanks to the production’s creative team. It’s hard to describe the warmth of the concert hall with just words, but if there’s more excellent programming where this came from, D.C. is in luck.
To check out more 50th anniversary celebration events at the Kennedy Center, visit kennedy-center.org.
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