- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

Sentiments both silly and sober marked the Kennedy Center Honors celebration this past weekend at both the private precincts of the State Department and the more public Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

It was the 29th annual ceremony in which the institution honors five performing artists for their outstanding career contributions to American culture. The event shoulders them with a colorful medallion and showers them with a 2-hour made-for-television special with friends and colleagues lavishing endearments a la “This Is Your Life” while also raising funds for the center’s many outreach activities.

As usual, this year’s honorees — Motown legend William “Smokey” Robinson, symphonic conductor Zubin Mehta, enduring Broadway composer Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, country music superstar Dolly Parton and acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg — were duty bound to stay silent while some of their dearest showbiz pals piled on the praise.

Formally attired audience members, who each ponied up $3,500 for last night’s all-star performance followed by an after-show supper, applauded the smooth soul songs of Detroit’s Mr. Robinson and the down-home stylings of Tennessee’s own Miss Parton, then cooed over the ethereal strains of classical music to recognize Mr. Mehta’s mastery of the genre while also paying homage to the majesty of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s musical theater.

Music even played a role in Mr. Spielberg’s accolades. Scores from some of his best-known films were presented by their composer John Williams, a past Kennedy Center honoree.

Earlier at the White House, President Bush with first lady Laura Bush thanked the quintet for “sharing your creative gifts and enriching the cultural life of our country.”

Then it was on to the Kennedy Center, where emcee Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg said of Mr. Robinson: “His songs of love made us all wish he was our guy.”

Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, a 1994 honoree, followed with personal stories of her days getting to know Mr. Robinson.

Miss Franklin, who was raised just two blocks from Mr. Robinson’s home in the Motor City, praised the singer-songwriter for his role in “helping [to] make the Motown sound world famous, redefining pop music in the ‘60s and using the corrective power of song to break down barriers between black and white.”

“You make me feel like the natural woman,” she purred a cappella, shaking up the already stirred audience.

“The Motown sound was pure Smokey — not a word wasted, not a second longer than three minutes,” she said.

Also helping state Mr. Robinson’s case were the Temptations, singers Sam Moore and India.Aire, rapper Cee-Lo and blues guitarist-vocalist Jonny Lang, all of whom dug deep into Mr. Robinson’s soul catalog underneath a brightly lit mock Motown marquee.

Itzhak Perlman, a 2003 honoree, said Mr. Mehta adores good, spicy food, has a firm grasp on all things geopolitical and loves a fine surprise.

And on stage, he remains a legend.

“Looking at him conduct is just as exciting as listening to the music,” Mr. Perlman said.

Mr. Mehta also inspires fierce loyalty in his orchestras, noting his enduring ties to both the New York Philharmonic and the Israeli Philharmonic orchestras.

He is the “conductor for life” with the latter, and to celebrate that fact 44 musicians from the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra performed in his honor.

Singer Sarah Brightman, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Lloyd Webber, said somewhere, at any given moment, “the curtain is going up on an Andrew Lloyd Webber show.”

And the curtain won’t be coming down any time soon, she added. “His music of the night is music for all time,” she said.

Corey Glover then belted out music from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” his rocker’s growl just right for the pop opera. More Broadway smashes from Mr. Lloyd Webber’s hit machine followed, sung by Christine Ebersol, Elena Rogers, Josh Groban and Betty Buckley.

Country star Reba McEntire said Miss Parton’s impact proved far more powerful than her celebrated curves.

“Dolly Parton was a diamond in a business filled with rhinestones,” she said.

The honoree transformed Nashville, empowering female singers in her wake with every hit song.

“She has become a trailblazer and an icon,” she said.

Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon said her love for Miss Parton began at an early age.

“I wanted to be Dolly, literally. She was blonde, I was blonde. She’s from Tennessee, I’m from Tennessee. She has this amazing figure, and I’m from Tennessee,” she quipped.

Miss Parton punched the air with glee when Kenny Rogers sprang to the stage to sing a duet with Carrie Underwood on “Islands in the Stream.” Alison Krauss, Shania Twain, Vince Gill and Jessica Simpson rounded out Miss Parton’s tribute set.

Liam Neeson, star of Mr. Spielberg’s stunning “Schindler’s List,” said the director helped him and his fellow castmates reach beyond their usual limits on the haunting movie. His direction “allowed us to follow him into emotional places we might not have had the courage to go [otherwise],” Mr. Neeson said.

The Oscar-winning film changed the lives of not just the cast but of the director himself. “He became fully aware of the profound power of the cinematic image on the audience,” Mr. Neeson said.

But last night’s program was just part of the honors weekend. The group of five basked in more acclaim during Saturday’s festivities at the State Department.

The traditional cocktail party found the five graciously accepting praise from the likes of Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Walters, “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, Mr. Neeson, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, outgoing Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Miss Twain.

Miss Parton, who at 60 still embodies the Barbie doll visage she forged her image on, said her honors ascension showed what kind of a country America is.

“It’s a place where you can go from an outhouse to the White House,” she said, referring to her simple roots.

Actor Bob Balaban said Mr. Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” ranks in the pantheon of greatest movies ever, adding that only someone like the film honoree “could take a subject matter … aliens … and make it unique.”

“He filled it with such sweetness, and it’s a genre not known for its sweetness,” Mr. Balaban said.

Actor Tom Hanks, with his wife Rita Wilson at less than arm’s length, compared working with Mr. Spielberg to play time. “He has such enthusiasm for the job, and I approach [making movies] the same way,” Mr. Hanks said.

Mr. Perlman said his favorite memory of Mr. Mehta came when the two first played together four decades ago.

“The energy he has, the kind of musical precision and the drama … it was terrific,” he said.

Mr. Robinson took wave after wave of kudos in stride, beaming as a stranger approached to tell him “I’ve been raised on your voice.” The singer/songwriter said the day marked a career highlight for him, but cautioned that career has no end in sight. “The fact that I’m still doing it, still doing concerts, and to have been around this long [is special]. I’m very, very blessed,” Mr. Robinson said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started the post-dinner program with her signature grace, adding her own personal connections to the honorees.

The first concert she ever attended on the first date she ever had, she said, was to see Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

“My father came along,” she said to huge laughs. “He thought there was too much power in his soul music.”

Motown maker Berry Gordy Jr. raised a glass to Mr. Robinson but not before rambling through an ode to his longtime musical partner.

Mr. Lucas, a screenwriter as well as director by trade, could have used an editor to spiffy up his words for Mr. Spielberg. But once again, the man’s bond with the honoree couldn’t be curtailed by inelegant prose.

British lyricist Leslie Bricusse’s toast of Mr. Lloyd Webber, by comparison, married a rich, dry wit with an unassailable kinship with the honoree.

Mr. Bricusse described Mr. Lloyd Webber’s most famous musicals as “the unholy trinity of Joseph, Jesus and Evita,” before teasing that New York’s Guardian Angels have their hands full trying to stop fans from attending his shows.

“His contributions to music,” Mr. Bricusse said, suddenly serious, “are incalculable.”

And Miss Krauss looked as if she were fighting back tears as she gave a heartfelt toast to Miss Parton.

“We’ve been mesmerized by every characteristic of this woman since she was 10,” Miss Krauss said. “She’s the most naturally talented woman I’ve ever met … and Dolly is the right person to be entrusted with all those gifts.”

Miss Rice’s comments were long completed by the time the final toast was raised, but part of her message lingered long into the night.

“The arts flourish most when they’re practiced in a democracy,” she said. “One wonders why [dictators] cared so much what artists did. … They understand the power of the arts … to give expression to human freedom. To them, that’s a threat.”

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