- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Traditionally a sophisticated, white-tie affair, the National Symphony Orchestra Ball usually features an embassy-sponsored international theme Colombia had roses and Latin music in 1999; Britain offered an artistic homage to London's new Tate Modern gallery last year. It is the one night of the year when couture ball gowns and major jewels are de rigueur for Washington's grandest ladies, who never tire of taking a turn on the dance floor with diplomats resplendent in medals, sashes, stars and rosettes.

One would hardly expect "The Soul & Spirit of America" to take its place: a Las Vegas-style concert event with Ray Charles belting out "Georgia on My Mind," Patti Austin singing "It's a Grand Old Flag" and musical theater star Michael Crawford crooning favorites from "The Phantom of the Opera."

But this year, of course, was different from other years.

Friday's 44th annual ball at the National Building Museum was a sharp break from the past, due in part to a conspicuously generous chairwoman, local businesswoman-philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds, and also to party planners' perplexity about handling the festivities with the nation at war. Immediately after the September 11 tragedy, organizers downgraded the dress code from white-tie considered to be much too celebratory to black. The previously planned French-oriented theme "An Evening of Romance" was replaced with a patriotic, American-oriented format.

Happily enough, the changes hardly dampened the evening's undeniably celebratory mood, nor did recessionary fears have any apparent affect on sales. Each of the 840 guests paid at least $750 apiece, a 50 percent increase from last year's $500 minimum ticket price.

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, standing before titanic-sized Stars and Stripes, told the crowd the NSO had raised $1.2 million for its education efforts that night, with Mrs. Reynolds matching every dollar.

That, of course, was on top of the unrestricted $10 million she had just given to the Kennedy Center earlier that day for special artistic programs of Mr. Kaiser's sole choosing.

Mrs. Reynolds' considerable financial clout also helped get Mr. Charles, Quincy Jones, James Ingram, Aaron Neville and Frank Sinatra Jr. added to the entertainment lineup.

The guest list was also stellar (and eclectic), with Queen Noor of Jordan and AmericaOnline co-founder Jim Kimsey in the crowd, along with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota; Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican; Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; former Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr; Redskins' owner Daniel M. Snyder (with cornerback Darrell Green at his table); Vernon and Ann Jordan; Selwa W. "Lucky" Roosevelt; singer Linda Hohenfeld Slatkin (her husband, NSO maestro Leonard Slatkin, missed the ball again because he was out of town conducting); various members of the Marriott hotel clan; and U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Stuart Bernstein, with his wife, Wilma.

The show began with historian Stephen Ambrose dressed Continental Congress style in breeches and a frock coat rhapsodizing over the glories of the Declaration of Independence: "a rock and a beacon," as he termed it. Mr. Daschle followed with a dramatic reading of excerpts from the historic document as the orchestra accompanied him with "America the Beautiful."

Later, obviously taken aback by the full, dramatic effect of swelling violins as he intoned the familiar words, Mr. Daschle made light of his performance: "I'll never speak without an orchestra again."

The evening's highlight was probably Mr. Charles singing "Georgia" at his piano as guests listened reverentially on the dance floor, packed in as if at a very formal, and very expensive, rock concert. In keeping with the persistent theme, Mr. Charles also sang "America the Beautiful."

The most unusual moment came when Mr. Neville suddenly got solemn after a medley of romantic tunes. More than a few couples were so enraptured that they never realized they were dancing to "The Lord's Prayer."

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