Kennedy Center Arts Festival Celebrates Anniversary Of JFK's Inaugural John F. Kennedy helped boost American interest in the arts when he asked poet laureate Robert Frost to speak at his inauguration 50 years ago this month — and soon after asked cellist Pablo Casals to play the White House. Now, the Kennedy Center honors that legacy with a star-studded arts festival.
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At Kennedy Center, An Arts Legacy Alive At 50

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At Kennedy Center, An Arts Legacy Alive At 50

At Kennedy Center, An Arts Legacy Alive At 50

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: For those of a certain age, the image is tattooed on memory.

U: Inauguration day dawns on a capital that had been almost paralyzed by a full-fledged blizzard.

TOTENBERG: The sky was so crystal clear, the white snow so dazzling and the glare of the sun so blinding that poet laureate Robert Frost couldn't read the poem he'd composed for the event. So he put aside the wind-ruffled pages and recited from memory another of his poems, "The Gift Outright."

M: The land was ours before we were the land's. She was our land more than a hundred years before we were her people.

TOTENBERG: He was the first poet asked to recite at an inaugural - a harbinger of things to come. President Kennedy spoke often of the need to promote the arts in our civilization. Here he is just a month before his death.

INSKEEP: I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.

TOTENBERG: Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser.

M: The Kennedys really believed that the people who make art, the people who write books, the people who have great scientific thoughts, had a very important role to play in society, and they honored them by putting a spotlight on them.

TOTENBERG: Fifty years later, the center is celebrating that pivotal moment for arts in America. The project has been on the drawing board for five years under Michael Kaiser's direction.

M: You can never be encyclopedic in a festival. So you start to think about highlights.

TOTENBERG: The events taking place include a new symphonic work featuring the words of President Kennedy, with Morgan Freeman and Richard Dreyfuss narrating. Performances by the American Ballet Theater, the organization that Mrs. Kennedy chaired until her death, exhibits featuring the work of artists with disabilities, because the Kennedys were such proponents of opportunity for the disabled, and events featuring young artists from tap dancers to musicians like Esperanza Spalding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M: (Singing) Why must you wonder, heaven isn't far.

TOTENBERG: Casals widow Marta Casals Istomin says her late husband struggled with the invitation and, finally, sent this letter to the president.

M: (Reading) May the music that I will play for you and for your friends symbolize my deep feelings for the American people and the faith and confidence we all have in you as leader of the free world.

TOTENBERG: On a November night in 1961, a glittering audience of women in ball gowns and men in white tie and tails gathered at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Among the guests was Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt - the last president for whom Casals had performed, more than a half century earlier at the dawn of the 20th century.

TOTENBERG: composers from Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland, conductors from Eugene Ormandy to Leopold Stokowski.

M: There was electricity. There was something - that people were here for something important.

TOTENBERG: Casals' widow Marta.

M: I was nervous because so many emotions at the same time. Casals was 85 years old, although I knew he was all right but, you know, these emotions can sometimes affect you. When I heard the first few notes, I knew it was going to be all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

TOTENBERG: At the end of the program, there was silence, then explosive applause.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

M: Then Casals walked over to President Kennedy and Casals said: Now I will play for you the "Song of the Birds," which for me means my nostalgia for my country, and my hope for freedom and peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SONG OF THE BIRDS")

TOTENBERG: So emotional was the moment that you can occasionally hear Casals voice, a sound close to a small cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SONG OF THE BIRDS")

TOTENBERG: The next morning, a photograph of the concert would be emblazoned across the front page of The New York Times. Kennedy Center president Kaiser was a boy then, but he remembers the excitement generated by that concert.

M: It affected the way all of us viewed culture. This was the most glamorous event of the year. It was a cello recital.

TOTENBERG: And it's a recital that will be duplicated tonight at the Kennedy Center with cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the pieces that Casals played on that night in 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SONG OF THE BIRDS")

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And you can hear all of that encore at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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