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Bittersweet gala honors Pacino, Eagles, Taylor – Obama bids farewell, for now, to art world at Kennedy Center Honors

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive for a reception to honor recipients of the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Dec 4. (AP)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive for a reception to honor recipients of the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Dec 4. (AP)

WASHINGTON, Dec 5, (Agencies): Al Pacino, The Eagles, James Taylor, gospel and blues singer Mavis Staples and Argentine pianist Martha Argerich were celebrated Sunday for their lifetime achievements at the last major arts gala attended by US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.

It was a bittersweet moment, with Obama making one of his final goodbyes to celebrated artists as president.

The first couple received a long standing ovation as they entered the Opera House of the Kennedy Center, a monument to the late president John F. Kennedy. As he kicked off the evening, host Stephen Colbert said America was lucky to have a “passionate, intelligent and dignified” president.

That brought applause and by far the longest standing ovation from the sold-out crowd in the Opera House, paneled in dark red woven fabric under a massive Lobmeyr crystal chandelier gifted by Austria.

Colbert then joked: “Sir, I don’t know why you stood up. I was talking about Michelle”.

“This is a joyous day. It’s the best Christmas present!” Staples told AFP on the red carpet about receiving what is considered the nation’s highest honor for lifetime achievements in the performing arts.

At 77, Staples lives up to the maxim that age is only a number.

“People ask me, ‘Mavis, when are you going to retire?’ Retire for what? I love what I’m doing and I intend to sing until I can’t sing no more, forever”, she said.

Aretha Franklin, Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey and Ringo Starr were among a series of surprise A-listers — the awardees are notoriously kept in the black about who will pay tribute to them prior to the event — who serenaded and hailed the legacy of the award recipients.


Virtuoso Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, now wheelchair-bound, and 29-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang played on the huge stage in honor of Argerich, with Perlman saying he felt lucky to have been alive during her time.

Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein thanked the Obamas, who have hosted a reception for the honorees and attended the gala for eight years, and offered them a “golden ticket” for free admission to any event at the national arts center.

But there’s a catch. “Parking is extra”, he quipped.

Obama jokingly asked Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, a notorious troublemaker, not to trash the White House because he is leaving soon and wants his “security deposit” back.

Founding member Glenn Frey died in January, and his prior illness caused The Eagles to postpone their awards last year. So Don Henley, Timothy Schmit and Joe Walsh received the medallions and rainbow-colored ribbons, as did Frey’s widow Cindy over the weekend.

Band manager Irving Azoff couldn’t hold back tears as he raised a glass to Frey during Saturday’s State Department reception.

“For our Eagles family, 2016 couldn’t have had a harder beginning or a more appropriate ending”, he said.

Grammy Award-winner Juanes gave a stunning performance of “Hotel California” with guitarist Steve Vai, who spoke of the “surreal” experience of playing the piece’s famed guitar riff in front of the musicians.

Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker played some of Taylor’s best hits, including “Carolina in my Mind” and “Sweet Baby James”.

Taylor, 68, performed “America the Beautiful” at Obama’s second inauguration in January 2013, while Staples, who like none other provided the music of the civil rights movement, sang at Kennedy’s inauguration.

Argerich, 75, is widely considered one of the world’s best, if reclusive, living pianists.

For nearly two decades, she largely shunned solo performances, playing almost exclusively with orchestras and chamber ensembles, until a sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2000. “I was surprised. I didn’t think I was entitled”, Argerich, who is famously wary of publicity, said of learning she had won the award.

Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle hailed Pacino’s humility despite a long and storied career that has seen him perform in some 100 films and plays, including “The Godfather”, “Scarface, “Sea of Love”, “Heat” and “Scent of a Woman”.

Kevin Spacey said Pacino “immerses us in his characters so we can experience the humanness in monsters and the monstrosities in humans”.

“The Kennedy Center honors are about folks who spent their lives calling on us to think a little to harder and feel a little deeper and express ourselves bravely and maybe take it easy every once in a while”, Obama said, calling the gala “one of the parts of the job that I will miss”.

At a reception hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday, Kennedy Center chairman Rubinstein handed the artists medallions and hung wide rainbow-colored ribbons around their necks.

“In 1968, when James Taylor signed with Apple Records, I was in Vietnam and America was at war abroad and in turmoil here at home. We were fighting and marching to the music of (Jimi) Hendrix, the drumming of Ringo (Starr), the Doors, the (Rolling) Stones, and the (Grateful) Dead”, Kerry said.

“And amid the darkness of that era, James Taylor returned sunlight to our minds, conjuring up the warm images of snow on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, deep greens and blues as the colors of choosing, and moonlight ladies singing rockabye to ‘Sweet Baby James’.”

In a recent interview, Argerich told The Washington Post she was “perplexed” about why she had received the award.

“I don’t understand, because I think I haven’t done much in America”, she added.

But Argerich has clearly made her mark, having performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and other top American orchestras.

The star-studded yearly gala is a high point on Washington’s society calendar.

On Dec 27, CBS television will broadcast the event, a fundraiser for the national arts center that is a living memorial to Kennedy.

The awards recognize performers’ lifetime contributions to American culture through the arts.

Kerry said honoring the performers served as a reminder for the nation that “even amid the turbulence, even amid the tragedies, there is something truly magical about the human spirit — its ability to bounce back and feel joy, its capacity to move in beguiling ways, and its utter refusal to give in to darkness — the light is always there”.

The Kennedy Center Honors are in their 39th year, a period that has included six presidents — three Republicans, three Democrats — and all have taken time to welcome the recipients. But the 2016 election was noteworthy for the way A-list performers lined up behind Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, while Trump had relatively few celebrity endorsements.

Although the president has no say in who receives the awards, Colbert joked that next year’s honorees would include Scott Baio, Gary Busey and Meat Loaf.

“For the past eight years, the White House has given us a leader who’s passionate, intelligent and dignified”, Colbert said, and the crowd rose for another prolonged ovation, prompting Obama to stand and wave.

Another standing ovation went to Bill Clinton, who made a surprise appearance on stage to talk about how Taylor’s music resonated with him and the American public in times that tested the nation’s resolve.

“Our nation was reeling from the pain of Vietnam”, Clinton said. “James was there to satisfy our hunger for both intimacy and authenticity”.

Politics aside, the honors proceeded as usual, with musicians and actors taking the stage to pay tribute to the honorees, who stood on a balcony, waving and applauding as they wore the event’s signature rainbow-colored garlands. The ceremony will be broadcast Dec 27 on CBS.

The tribute to Pacino included remarks by Sean Penn and recitations of Shakespeare by Laurence Fishburne and Lily Rabe. Chris O’Donnell and Gabrielle Anwar re-enacted the tango that Pacino danced with Anwar in “Scent of a Woman”, the 1992 movie that won Pacino his long-overdue Oscar.

Spacey gave a virtuoso tutorial on how to impersonate the actor whose passionate delivery has helped create some of the most memorable lines in American cinema. The keys are to look surprised and exhale loudly, Spacey said.

“Al seems to have a lot of air”, he said.

Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker performed medleys of Taylor’s music. Yitzhak Perlman played violin and Yuja Wang played piano to honor the Argentine-born Argerich.

Staples’ songs were performed by Elle King, Bonnie Raitt and Andra Day, and actor Don Cheadle spoke about the civil rights legacy of Staples and her family, who were close to the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and performed at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

“She’s still fighting. She’s still singing freedom songs”, Cheadle said.

The Eagles were originally selected to be honored last year, but the band opted to delay participation because of founding member Glenn Frey’s poor health. Frey died in January at age 67, making the event a bittersweet one for the surviving Eagles, who were joined by Frey’s widow, Cindy Frey. Henley has said the band will never perform again. Bob Seger, Vince Gill and Kings of Leon performed the Eagles’ music Sunday.

“I want to dedicate this evening to our brother Glenn”, Henley said as the band accepted its honors Saturday night at the State Department. “He was so much a part of our success. He was the driving force in this band. He believed in the American dream”.


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