Lovely day (night) at the Kennedy Center

When a man with a great voice (Jose James) and a great band (Nate Smith and James Francies, among others) and access to a great stage (the Kennedy Center) has a love for a musician whose music you also love (Bill Withers), you go. I also love it when the Kennedy Center lives up to its potential of feeling like the most D.C. place possible. My hometown makes me happy. The crowd of all colors and ages was just what last weekend needed, along with a sick dog getting on the mend just in time to catch the show. The songs at the tribute were warm and soulful and brought out the writing that makes Withers work. Good seats, too.

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Songs to save a world destined to die

Photo from Lori. My close-up of the inscription.

The most moving musical experience I had this spring was seeing the Kennedy Center’s celebration of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album. The Post had a good preview of the pair of concerts, and I snagged two of the last tickets for the first night. The tickets were a little pricey, but we received much more than our money’s worth.

One of my favorite singers, John Legend, was the star of the night, but he shared the spotlight initially with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. They ran through a set of Marvin/Tammi duets that suffered from an over-amplified mix but shined when the orchestration got quiet. If I Can Build My Whole World Around You won big for me. (DCist too.) The album of the night arrived in the second set, with the National Symphony Orchestra joining the Dap-Kings. Toward the end, Jones rejoined and the kids of the Duke Ellington School’s show choir sang back-up.

Coming and going throughout the night were award-winning teen slam poets, every one of whom won over the audience with their work. And they were working. Words stacked, paced and delivered with great strength, alternating power and beauty to bring their messages best. No announcer introduced them. They simply walked on stage, and the hall quieted to listen.

The Post review said the show packed in too much and put too many people on stage, and it was probably right. At one point, there must have been more than a 100 people on stage. The orchestra and the Dap-Kings were collectively too much and too loud in the mix.

But the review also said the show had an award-show feel, and I disagreed with that take. Just as there were no introductions for the teen slam poets, there was no introduction for Legend, either. He walked out, and the show began. Even when there were the 100-plus on stage, the lack of narration made it clear we weren’t there to honor them. We and they were both there to honor the album and carry it forward.

The album as a living document, that goal of the night was well met.

The duets brought the pop introduction that Gaye himself gave listeners for years leading to What’s Going On. The young poets brought his themes to modern times and gave them a venue that in the past only belonged to the greatest long-dead composers. Legend honored the pauses and switches that make the album a great album, not just a collection of great songs. The night itself was a cumulation of a “What’s Going On… Now” campaign that got teens talking and writing remixes around the album’s ideas.

Maybe so many people shouldn’t have been up there, but you would have had a tough time trying to keep them off. The audience was there for similar reasons, to carry the album forward, through current days and into future years, and would have accepted a full march onto the stage.

On the album, in my mind, the loveliest, scariest line comes midway through, closing the alternatingly sung and spoken Save the Children. “Who’s willing to try,” asks Gaye, to “save a world that is destined to die?” He doesn’t pause the music there, segueing immediately into the next song. But later, in the album’s final track change, Gaye makes a hard break. The string-filled prayer of Wholy Holy dies down. The instant of silence strikes you first as innocent. Then come the introductory piano and chime hits, sparse. They build into the hidden but riot-ready heat of Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). “God knows where we’re headed” is that song’s last clear line before a musical breakdown and a benedictory reprise of the title theme.

The album was a challenge to its listeners. But amid all the concert noise at the Kennedy Center, the album also answered a challenge the building itself put forth, to grow opportunities and create a respected civilization. If we accepted the album as a living document, we still had time.

Bang all kinds of gongs, get it on

It was terrific this weekend that when friends saw a “gong orchestra” was at the Kennedy Center, they thought of me and asked if I’d gone. You bet I’d gone. There was a gong orchestra at the Kennedy Center!


Tatsuya Nakatani came to town with the Nakatini Gong Orchestra, of which he was the lone standing member. In each city on his tour, he has teamed up with five local percussionists — a night-prior rehearsal and then a show — to play as many as 10 gongs at once. Rather than a string of huge gong hits, each member of the orchestra used a soft mallet and bow Nakatini had built. The effect was primal yet modern.

The darkly shimmering sounds of string-on-metal felt like the groaning of the planet’s magnetic core, an all-natural, healthier White Noise but still mysterious and potentially dangerous, like magma butterfly wings. The mallet hits were the flapping, interfering in the human, the digital.

Close to a thousand people were there, I figured. All of the seats and then some in the Millennium Stage area were packed. I arrived around showtime, so I ended up in the back. Nakatani worried in his opening remarks about the sound — it was the first time he was working with an amplification system, he said — the effect was still strong. He was right that we wouldn’t feel the sounds as much his audiences normally do. I would absolutely go back to see him in much smaller spaces. But the 45-minute auditory experience was deeply engrossing on its own.

Afterward, you could walk all the way up to the stage, get a nice look at the gongs and greet Nakatani, who was happy to hang around and answer gong questions. In retrospect, I should have asked to hit one.

Walking around the city’s roof

The Grishams invited me to join them at the Kennedy Center on Friday, seeing George Benson sing Nat King Cole. We lucked into an amazing day outside, part of a good run of amazing days. After an introductory NSO Pops set from the very enthusiastic Steven Reineke (less than a minute into his conducting, Lori leaned over and whispered “G.O.B.“), Benson explored Cole’s catalog and won the crowd easily for the next hour. I heard the two songs I really wanted to hear — Walkin’ My Baby Back Home, my first introduction to Cole, via an Ed Sullivan compilation, and Mona Lisa — and others for which I was glad to receive reminders.

What Benson did better than I could have imagined was hit Cole’s big opening notes. Cole did not enter songs cautiously. In the first word or first line, he delivered the tone of the song in his own style, and there was no looking back at the time before the song began. Covering him, Benson jumped in, seemingly unafraid, and reached the ends of those starters unscathed. “If I had to chooose… just onne dayyy” and so on.

We walked around the Kennedy Center’s upper balcony after, and the day felt similar. Winter did a summer cover and sang that big first note.

Boredom builds, and then what happens?

(Photo by friend Amy from our seats.)

The new Uncle Vanya here in the capital, as you have probably heard tell, is fantastic. “All your suppositions about Chekhov’s soulful gentility fly out the doors of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with this tornadic rendering of a country estate consuming itself in the misery of missed opportunities,” the Post says. “Who says torpor isn’t a dynamic noun?” Over at the Times, Ben Brantley goes even bigger, saying, “the three hours I spent on Saturday night watching them complain about how bored they are among the happiest of my theatergoing life.”

I went with friend Amy a week ago. I had never seen Chekhov before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Was the play Uncle Buck in Russian? With the principle of Chekhov’s gun, would they kill this Uncle Vanya in the end? Blank slate. But I had bought tickets at the pre-sale because I really wanted to see it. I had missed Cate Blanchett and her Sydney theater company a couple years ago when they came to the Kennedy Center with Streetcar Named Desire. That performance received glowing reviews like I couldn’t remember reading in the Post. Granted, reading stage reviews hadn’t been in my habits long. But I was working on it. This time around, I wasn’t going to miss a winner — if a winner it was.

The play wasn’t what I’d expected, even not knowing what to expect.

It was funny. Chekhov, who knew? The crowd laughing threw me off, me in my serious play-seeing, putting-on-a-tie mindset. It wasn’t until intermission, getting air on the Potomac balcony, when the fun mood kicked in. Australians doing a great Russian work were like the Coen brothers doing True Grit, a great Western. All this land they had and with which they couldn’t possibly do anything entirely, it connected.

It was an ensemble. Not knowing the play, I’d expected the Blanchett show. But she was a good boss. She played with the team, and the meaning laid on their broken shoulders collectively. Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were similarly huge and not. The room and Russia’s land were the stars. We never saw the land, but the room was in it.

It was a parlor. I don’t know what I expected otherwise. Steppes? A turn-of-the-century office and its bureaucracy? But, no, one house. A couple rooms, vaguely. But what a house and what a couple rooms.

I had never been more enthralled with people discussing boredom. At first, watching, I didn’t know what to do with them. Then they started to act out some. Then they started to feel familiar. Chekhov’s gun, this time around, was passion. Set into rural Russia, this contraband was symbolic, yes. But if such a situation could happen to a whole country trapped in a room, it could happen to you, looking out. Laughs would occur, and you wouldn’t be alone. But you would still be in the room.

Walking to Metro after the show, after a rare, not-sweltering day, the evening air felt as vital to processing as it had felt during intermission. Each deep breath, every step up the street was necessary for escape, or at least what I hoped was escape, in the best way possible. I have been more restless since the show, which I would recommend entirely.

‘The radiance of the sky in spring’

Such is the title of the first scene of Prokofiev’s opera of War and Peace, pausing so briefly at the Kennedy Center and becoming my first opera.

Four hours in length, more than 400 actors and musicians and then…

In an operation that involved a container ship, 2 cranes, 6 weeks on the open seas, 17 trucks, 57 workers, 137 crates of costumes and wigs, 8,000 nuts and bolts and 20,000 pounds of hanging scenery, the gargantuan Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra production of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera has been imported from St. Petersburg and reassembled on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House.

All this, and there were only going to be two shows. The numbers sold me. I was surfing late late Wednesday when the Post story on the wild spectacle arrived. I’d never seen an opera before, and I knew I had to get a ticket. Rushed to the Kennedy Center’s site, got the last cheaper orchestra seat where I could still see the translations above the stage.

Blitzer caught the first show. I saw the second all Sunday afternoon.

Who knew the peace came before the war? Maybe you, if you’ve read the book. I have not! But what peace and, when it arrives, what war. The strength of the leads played into the depth of the staging, in the opening spring-at-night scenes into palace dances into snowy flights into burning towers into execution meadows into a final, mortal sleep.

The tons of scenery and stage-wide revolving platform were powerful but set mood, just as the love story fit under the empire battle. Only when they disappeared too much did life slow. Thankfully, not often.

Favorite moments: Andrei grasping the fallen pillow as he sang. Their New Year’s Eve dance away from the crowd. Anatol’s evil. Bezukhov’s good. The last minute of act one and first minute of act two. The long, beautiful intermission outside on the Potomac. Napoleon rising as the stage turned. The Russian struggle revealed as it turned further. The cannons pointed at my part of the opera house. The giant red puppet. Natasha’s voice. Fire becoming snow. The dropped flags. The bravos.

So: “Life is not over at 31! We must believe with all our strength in the forces of spring, happiness and joy, if we wish to be happy ourselves.”

Seeing Itzhak Perlman

If you ever want to see an orchestra in Technicolor, sit in a stage box. Sit directly above the cymbals, so when they crash together, you see them fly back apart and catch the lights as the sound rushes at you. The bass drum and the timpanis are alongside. After loving timpanis more than any other percussion since childhood, the rare pound of the bass drum gives you second thoughts. Your third thought is how you can get one for the office. A gong is there too, but it only gets a lone, shimmering touch. Leaving the symphony hall, you have to admit a massive, stage-shaking gong strike wouldn’t have fit the Tchaikovsky.

Jess and I — despite the summer’s weeks of sad music in this blog, we’re still friends — saw Itzhak Perlman and the NSO at the Kennedy Center recently, and we took no pictures of how good the seats were. The usher was sure we youth were going to take illicit cell photos in the hall, and we totally would have if he hadn’t been rightly eyeing us. But the Kennedy Center site captured the view well. Screengrab …

Perlman, admittedly one of the few classical musicians on my shelves, didn’t disappoint. He conducted while playing his famous violin for the first piece (Bach 1, 2, 3) and then led with the baton for the latter two (Mozart 1, 2, 3, 4 and Tchaikovsky 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). He threw himself into both roles, and I loved seeing his face and his arms when he sat facing the players. He lost his grip on the baton at one point but caught it in mid-air without missing a beat. Attending a previous show, even the high-minded and classically attuned Washington Post critic received the same impression, “it offered a lot to enjoy — which, as Perlman seems most healthily to keep in mind, is the whole point of the exercise.”

My last time seeing Perlman was on Sesame Street, a fact that much amused the Kennedy Center box-office operator. I couldn’t remember exactly what Perlman’s performance was on the show until later. He had played with early Telly and joined in the great Put Down the Ducky montage, but neither was what I was looking for. A Muppet Wiki entry and a blogger with a mending pelvis finally led me in the right direction.

A little girl ran to a stage, and Perlman climbed slowly on his crutches. Then they played their violins and talked about the lesson. The video.