Kennedy Center Names This Year’s Honorees

Every year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts selects artists from across a broad spectrum to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. Essentially a presentation of lifetime-achievement awards, it is a singular occasion, turning the town into a little and a lot of a red-carpet town.

The Honors have changed over the years, in terms of the scope and range, beginning as something of a formal affair which focused heavily but not exclusively on the classical arts: composers, conductors, singers and musicians, along with giants in the field of dance. This changed over the years to encompass film, television, jazz, and pop music, including major-league rock stars.

This year’s honors — the 39th — will be held in a star-filled celebration at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Sunday, Dec. 4. Produced this year by Ricky Kirschner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment, the event will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. The Honors will be the last for President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who will preside over the gala presentation, which will conclude with a dinner in the grand foyer. The honorary chairs of the 2016 Honors Gala are Buffy Cafritz and Ann D. Jordan.

This year’s selection is as eclectic as ever, exemplary of where the Honors are today and what they encompass. The honorees include a classical pianist, a film and stage actor who is also a major movie star, a folk singer from the 1970s who is still doing excellent work, one of the most significant American rock bands in the post-1960s era and a giant gospel and blues singer.

The pianist is Argentina-born Martha Argerich, who is famous for her interpretation of a large and varied repertoire that includes the works of Bach, Bartok, Beethoven, Messiaen, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Franck, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Argerich is now focusing heavily on chamber music, while hosting an annual festival, leading international competitions, holding master classes and supporting young artists.

Then there’s Al Pacino, an actor known for his intense, fierce portrayals across a long career that rocketed to attention with his role as Michael Corleone in Director Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy, which won Oscars for Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, but not Pacino, who had to wait for “Scent of a Woman” for his first Oscar. Nonetheless, his is a distinguished and long career, with forays onto the stage doing Shakespeare and Mamet. Although Pacino has played Shylock and the crazed Miami drug lord in “Scarface,” it’s difficult to separate him from his native South Bronx.

The gospel and rhythm and blues artist is Mavis Staples, who has been called an alchemist of American music, crossing musical lines and categories and enhancing just about every form of modern popular music through her participation. That includes gospel, her source and inspiration, which is also imbued with blues, soul, folk, pop, R&B, rock and roll, Americana and hip hop.

She started recording with the the Staples singers, which included her father and her brother and sisters. She has ranged across the American music, with freedom songs of the Civil Rights era, gospel and folk songs and such familiar songs as “I’ll Take You There” and ”Respect Yourself.” Her collaborations speak volumes; she inspired Bob Dylan and Prince and collaborated with Van Morrison, Billy Preston, Zack Brown, Ry Cooder, Chuck D. and Willie Nelson.

James Taylor is still going strong after bursting on the folk, rock and acoustic scene 40 years ago with “Sweet Baby James.” His version of “You’ve Got a Friend” is still sung and remembered fondly whenever the opportunity arises. He got his first-ever number-one album on the Billboard charts in 2015 with “Before This World.” He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. For a time, he and Carly Simon made up a formidable king and queen couple of rock and pop before divorcing.

The Eagles were one of the most influential rock bands ever. Their California sound music went way beyond that as a highly original contribution to the annals of rock and roll. The honor would be a posthumous tribute to lead singer Glenn Frey, who died earlier this year, and who, with the prolific songwriter Don Henley, were the faces of the band, which includes Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh.

“These honorees,” said Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein, “represent what is possible when creativity is not just cultivated but unleashed.”

“Reflecting on the powerful commitments these artists have made to their crafts as well as the cultural contributions they have made over the course of their illustrious careers is a humbling experience,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter.


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