The lifetime awards for artistic expertise will be presented Sunday night at a gala at the Kennedy Center’s main opera house, after the coronavirus pandemic forced delays and major changes to last year’s plans.
WTOP’s Valerie Bonk at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Kennedy Center Honors returned to tradition this year with a real gala Sunday night and the presence of the President for the first time since 2016.
The lifetime awards for artistic excellence were presented to Motown Records creator Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” master Lorne Michaels, actress-singer Bette Midler, opera singer Justino Diaz and folk music legend Joni Mitchell.
This year’s event at the Kennedy Center’s Main Opera House represented a return to political normality, attended by President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump skipped show over the first three years he was in office after several of the artists honored in 2017, his first year in office, threatened to boycott a White House reception, if he attended. Last year, the pandemic forced a delay and major changes to the program.
The bidens received a sustained standing ovation as they entered the presidential box of the opera house. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed the national anthem and encouraged the audience to sing the last lines together.
The theater was packed and there were no restrictions on social distance, but vaccinations and recent negative COVID tests were required for everyone who attended.
The tribute contained testimonies and performances that were kept secret from the honored. Mitchell’s tribute included performances of her songs by Nora Jones, Brandi Carlile, Ellie Goulding and Brittany Howard. Diaz was honored with a performance from the opera “Carmen” and a song from his two daughters, Katya and Natascia.
For Michaels, the organizers have put together three “Weekend Update” segments on stage with several generations of fake news anchors – Kevin Nealon, Seth Myers and Amy Poehler and the current duo of Michel Che and Colin Jost. Che joked that Biden would sleep before the end of the show, and Poehler teased the Toronto-born Michaels by proclaiming that Joni Mitchell had been declared “the best Canadian ever.”
Funds received testimony from close friends Goldie Hawn and Barbara Hershey, and a performance by Tony Award winner Billy Porter of her iconic song, “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” Gordy’s career was celebrated with the appearance of several Motown hits by Andra Day and Stevie Wonder and an extended tribute from close friend Smokey Robinson. The event ended with several of the night’s artists participating in a performance of Wonder’s hit “Higher Ground”.
Prior to the Kennedy Center event, Biden revived another tradition that had gone to sleep under Trump, and held a reception at the White House for the honored.
“We welcome everyone back,” he said to a crowd of about 150 seated in the East Room, adorned with Christmas trees and wreaths. Guests included Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Caroline Kennedy, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chita Rivera, Steve Martin and Herbie Hancock.
“Our nation is stronger, more dynamic and more vibrant because of you,” Biden told the honorary recipients.
Biden praised the artists’ work, their “sixth sense,” which helps them create and move so many people, and said, “I do not think you fully appreciate what you do for so many people.”
He talked about Diaz’s “sound of soul”, Gordy’s creation of “one of the most iconic companies” in American history with Motown Records. With Michaels, he joked, “Finally, it’s my turn to say something about him,” and enjoyed Michaels’ SNL show, which routinely mocks presidents, including the current commander-in-chief.
“You make me laugh a lot at myself,” Biden said, then went on to say that Michaels was auditioning for actors right now to play him next time on SNL. Biden asked Steve Martin to stand as an example of the type of talent Michaels has cultivated over the past decades.
Martin paused and asked the president, “Do you want me to play you?” The audience burst out laughing.
Biden then declared his admiration for both Mitchell and Means, telling Means that “people will never forget how you make them feel. It’s your gift, it’s incredible.”
And finally: “Joni. Your words and melodies touch the deepest parts of our soul, “Biden said.
Last year, the pandemic forced the organizers to move the annual December ceremony back to May 2021. Performing tributes to the artists were filmed over several nights and several locations on campus.
The most important COVID-related change of the year was to move the annual Saturday ceremony, where honorees receive their medals on rainbow-colored ribbons, to the Library of Congress instead of the State Department.
Sunday’s ceremony, which airs Dec. 22 by CBS, is the focal point of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary of cultural programs. The center opened in 1971.
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