- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wilson Savoy, squeezebox in his hands, looked out over the Kennedy Center crowd on a recent Saturday night. More than 500 people sat in chairs, stood near the entrance to the Hall of Nations or flopped on the red-carpeted steps to the Concert Hall — and waited for him to begin.

“We’re a little nervous here,” said the lanky young leader of the Pine Leaf Boys, a zydeco-spiced, traditional Cajun music band out of Lafayette, La. “We’ve never been here before, so we don’t know what to expect. I hope y’all dance.”

“Here” is the Kennedy Center’s Grand Foyer, where two stages — one at each end of the foyer — serve as the main sites for the Millennium Stage, a program of free performances for all, 365 days a year, that celebrates its 10th anniversary on Monday.

In spite of their jitters, Mr. Savoy and the “boys” played a one-hour-plus concert on the south stage full of catchy numbers like “La Belle Josette” and “Blues de Bosco,” most of the lyrics sung in French.

The music was infectious, and the people danced through the whole set — men and women together, women and women as if they were girls in high school, older couples in cowboy boots, all gliding across the floor to two-steps, waltzes and earthier fare.

The rousing, jovial concert was probably as characteristic an example of a night at the Millennium Stage as one can find.

Live and free

Here’s why: The show was enthusiastically attended; it was a top-drawer example of professional performance art; and, like every performance in the 10-year history of the Millennium Stage, it was free to the public.

As do many live Millennium Stage performers, the Pine Leaf Boys offered music of a type not often heard at the Kennedy Center, regional offerings by an up-and-coming group. Nobody dressed up much.

The people who came — on a bitterly cold night with gusty, biting winds — arrived from all over and represented exactly the kind of audience for which the Millennium Stage was created, under the banner of the Performing Arts for Everyone program.

They were a mix of types: locals long familiar with Millennium Stage programming, tourists who wandered in and stayed, folks who are part of the fan base of this kind of music or who follow a particular act like the Pine Leaf Boys, avid fans of live performance art who can’t necessarily afford the pricier offerings at the Kennedy Center, or first-time visitors to the nation’s cultural center.

And the shows fill a need.

“There’s definitely a demand, maybe even a hunger, for live performance,” says Garth Ross, 36, director of Performing Arts for Everyone, an outreach program that includes Millennium Stage, the downtown discount-ticket facility TicketPlace, and periodic offerings of low-cost, no-cost and pay-what-you-can tickets.

365 days of logistics

The Kennedy Center’s numbers say that more than 2.8 million national and international visitors have seen 4,000 performing groups since the Charlie Byrd Trio and the Billy Taylor Trio opened the Millennium Stage on March 1, 1997 — and yes, that is the true anniversary date; the celebration was set for Feb. 5 to accommodate performance schedules.

Hardly any facet of the performing arts has been left out. Genres range from modern dance, jazz, ballet, popular music, opera, choral groups, chamber and symphonic music to tap dance, theater, puppetry, stand-up comedy, cabaret and traditional music such as the Pine Leaf Boys’ Cajun.

The price tag is an obvious attraction, but “free” doesn’t mean lower quality. Millennium Stage performers have included the Earl Scruggs Friends and Family, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Judy Collins, Bobby McFerrin, Sergio Mendez, Shirley Horn, Melissa Manchester, Chuck Brown, the Kingston Trio, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Don McLean of “American Pie” fame, the Four Tops, the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Pointer Sisters, Nanci Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra, and punk-new age rocker Patti Smith.

“Every performance requires extremely professional production,” Mr. Ross says. “Everything is done by contract. We make sure the performers have their needs met, if they need lodging, or instruments, or setting up CD and souvenir sales. Professional performers all receive contracted remuneration.”

Nor does “free” mean uncomplicated.

“Providing, staging and producing 365 free performances every year isn’t the easiest thing in the world to accomplish,” Mr. Ross says. “The amazing thing to me is not that there are 365 things that can go wrong, but that so many things go right every time out.”

A democratic vision

The idea of “performing arts for everyone” originated in the winter of 1997 with James A. Johnson when he was the Kennedy Center’s chairman. The Millennium Stage, another Johnson brainchild that was initially underwritten by Mr. Johnson and his wife, Maxine Isaacs, was up and running at the time; it fell naturally under the “arts for all” umbrella.

It’s a democratic concept that Mr. Johnson, now chairman emeritus, sums up in a 10th-anniversary statement that suggests an obligation to serve Everyman.

“The Kennedy Center belongs to the nation, and the productions staged here must be shared with every American,” Mr. Johnson says.

Numbers tell the story: Since March 1, 1997, 41,000 free Kennedy Center performances have taken place under the Millennium Stage rubric, featuring artists from all 50 states (and 19,000 from the Washington area alone) as well as 3,000 international performers from 50 countries. More than 1,500 ensembles — from swing orchestras to chamber music groups to the five Pine Leaf Boys — have made their Kennedy Center debuts.

Early years

The Millennium Stage itself began as a way to formalize what was, even in 1997, a common practice.

“We always had free performances of one sort or another in the Grand Foyer,” Mr. Ross says. “They were connected with festivals, special occasions — the Kennedy Center Open House, or festivals geared to celebrate the cultures of U.S. states or countries or regions. But they were never organized on a regular basis.”

The idea served other purposes as well, says Shelley Brown, now the vice president of programming and artistic director at the Music Center at Strathmore. She programmed many of the early Grand Foyer special and free performances and was the programmer for the first year of the Millennium Stage performances in 1997.

“For years, we used to see all those literally millions of tourists coming through the Kennedy Center without actually getting a chance to see a performance here,” Ms. Brown says.

“Plus, we were always trying to find ways to increase the involvement with and connection to local artists, cultural groups and performers. And this also turned out to be a way to have more of the entire Washington community have access to the Kennedy Center on a regular basis.”

Standards were set early on: The Millennium Stage would be geared primarily to family audiences — not that the fare would be for children, but rather that the stage would not be a site for in-your-face, profane stand-up comedy, or political proselytizing, or four-letter-word raps.

Scheduling complications were obvious. Opera House, Concert Hall and Eisenhower Theater patrons mill about in the Grand Foyer waiting for their performances to begin, so Millennium Stage events would have to be timed for minimal interference.

“I have to say, it was hectic,” Ms. Brown says of the first year. “That year was in a way a pioneer year, a year to get it right, or to make mistakes and learn from them. I like to think there weren’t too many mistakes.”

Performers from everywhere

Much of the Millennium Stage’s programming, Mr. Ross says, comes out of Kennedy Center educational initiatives — such as the Local Dance Commissioning Project and the Conservatory Project, which have a performance component — or from center festivals; last year’s Country Music Festival included free performances on the Grand Foyer stages.

“In addition,” Mr. Ross says, “you spend a lot of time looking for new performers — especially, but not exclusively, local performers. So part of your job is being out there at conferences, festivals, and the like, workshops.

“That’s actually how I ran across the Pine Leaf Boys, at a folk music conference in Texas.”

Not every one of these artists will perform on one of the two Grand Foyer stages. Special occasions or needs sometimes require special locations.

The Martin Luther King birthday concert on Jan. 15, for example, was offered free of charge in the Concert Hall, as was the Jan. 6 staged reading of “Twelfth Night” that kicked off the Shakespeare in Washington Festival — and at that performance more than 2,500 people filled the Concert Hall and another 2,000 had to be turned away.

But large crowds are the norm. Mr. Ross recalls the time when a blizzard struck the city and the contracted performer, a classical musician, could not get to Washington.

“We went through our little book and files and found a gentleman who lived at the Watergate who was also a classical pianist. He got into a tuxedo and performed,” Mr. Ross says.

“That’s not what was amazing. What was amazing is that 200 people came and stayed for the performance.”

Drawing the crowds

Anyone who doesn’t believe that nightly free performances are a big draw should check the archive of Millennium Stage performances on the Kennedy Center’s Web site, where almost all the performances can be viewed. Live performances can be seen as well, in real time through streaming video.

“The Web has been a big boost for everything,” Mr. Ross says. “People track the performance schedules of bands and groups. They do e-mail blasts, they blog. And we market aggressively on the Web, or promote in general — as well as particular performances.”

The crowds come. One couple who go regularly to Cajun dancing events drove from the Philadelphia area to see the Pine Leaf Boys here. Washington resident Paul J. Kollmer-Dorsey, a lawyer from Cleveland Park, is a regular who brings his son Caedmon, 5, to see such performers as Turkey’s Mavera Ensemble of whirling dervishes (who appeared in December), and the Pine Leaf Boys.

“We come here sometimes twice a week,” Mr. Kollmer-Dorsey says. “I pick up my son from school, we might go to the cafe, and we catch a concert. It’s educational, its fun, you see and hear things you wouldn’t get a chance to see and hear. Like the Turkish dervishes. Like this. The crowds, they’re always big.”

Back in the Grand Foyer the Pine Leaf Boys — Mr. Savoy, Cedric Watson, Drew Simon, Jon Bertrand and Blake Miller, fresh from driving their minivan from Knoxville, Tenn., after a performance at the Laurel Theater there — slid into the guitar, accordion, sweet drum and bass sounds and rhythm of a Cajun waltz.

And on the foyer’s red carpet the couples danced, and kept on dancing.

Celebrating Millennium’s 10th

It’s been 10 years since the Millennium Stage began its program of free entertainment. The Kennedy Center will celebrate on Monday with, appropriately, four free performances — three ticketed events and one, in the Grand Foyer, that requires no tickets.

Tickets went up for grabs on Saturday, so it’s best to check for availability. All ticketed performances will be projected on screens in the Grand Foyer to accommodate patrons without tickets and those who arrive late. For complete information see kennedy-center.org.

m Grand Foyer Millennium Stage: The Commodores, a specialty unit of the U.S. Navy Band and the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble, under Chief Musician Philip M. Burlin. 6-7 p.m. No tickets required.

m Concert Hall: The National Symphony Orchestra under Associate Conductor Emil de Cou in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” 7-7:40 p.m. Tickets required.

m Eisenhower Theater: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in its signature classic, “Revelations.” 8-8:30 p.m. Tickets required.

m Opera House: Popular indie-rock performer Sufjan Stevens, who began a “50-states” album series in 2004, will be accompanied by members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. 9-10 p.m. Tickets required.

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