Starting this month, the Kennedy Center undertakes the largest festival in its history. Presented as part of The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Series for Artistic Excellence, A New America: The 1940s and the Arts is an in-depth look at the explosion of American artistic creativity in the 1940s.
"During the 1940s, the juxtaposing themes of war and escapism, sacrifice and great promise, infused a remarkable burst of creativity into film, dance, theater, jazz, and popular and classical music that set the groundwork for the arts and artists of generations to come," says Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. "The Center celebrates this artistically prolific and significant era with A New America: The 1940s and the Arts."
During the next six months, the Center will celebrate the rich spectrum of music, dance, theater, film, and fashion that was produced by the many remarkable American artists who struggled, created, and triumphed during this turbulent and exhilarating era. Influenced by the tragedy and hope of the war years, the country's ensuing economic expansion, and the establishment of a new social order, these artists challenged the nature of art itself and helped give rise to America's unique aesthetic identity with innovative expressions that continue to resonate and define our national culture today.
An unprecedented roster of spectacular performances, educational programs, and special events, A New America promises a Kennedy Center-wide celebration like no other.
A living national treasure since its founding in 1940, American Ballet Theatre has created a tradition of unsurpassed passion, athleticism, and originality. From February 1 through 13 in the Opera House, ABT offers the best of its repertoire from the company's first decade‹including ABT's "richly attractive and superbly atmospheric" (New York Times) production of the timeless favorite Giselle. The company also brings back Kevin McKenzie's staging of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's spellbinding ballet of dreamlike transformation, mistaken identity, and ill-fated love. For its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2000, the Washington Post called it "a spectacle of shimmering light that builds in force until its most luminescent moment‹the moonlit entrance of the enchanted Princess Odette." ABT's third program will feature four famous ballets created by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes: Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose, both danced by ABT in the 1940s, plus Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor and the full-length Pétrouchka.
Founded in 1926 by dancer, choreographer, and American icon Martha Graham, Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest contemporary dance company in America and one of its most celebrated. Its repertory spans eight decades, showing the staggering scope and beauty of Graham's work, from the power and simplicity of the all-women group works and early solos to the insightful beauty of the acclaimed classics.
For its much-anticipated return to the Kennedy Center, February 17-19 in the Eisenhower Theater, Martha Graham Dance Company presents a program that pays tribute to a particularly fruitful era in Graham's choreographic oeuvre. The program will include the 1944 classic Appalachian Spring‹her ode to the pioneer spirit of America, called the "most impressive and masterly of Graham's early creations" by the Wall Street Journal‹among other Graham masterworks.
The 1940s was a seminal period in the development of American classical music also. For two special National Symphony Orchestra concerts, Music Director Leonard Slatkin has chosen eight composers of distinct and different artistic styles who have exerted great impact on succeeding generations of composers.
February 3-5, violinist Leonidas Kavakos joins Slatkin, the Master Chorale of Washington, and the Orchestra for a program that showcases the spirited energy of Thomson's Fugue and Chorale on Yankee Doodle; the lush, film-score quality of Korngold's Violin Concerto; the brassy, magnificent sound of Schuman's Third Symphony; and works by Creston and Carter.
Cellist Lynn Harrell and mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips are the featured soloists in February 10-12 concerts led by Maestro Slatkin. The program features three works that embody the musical culture of the time: Bernstein's "Jeremiah" Symphony, a mix of soaring pathos and unabashed theatricality; Barber's Cello Concerto, gorgeously lyrical and romantic in tone; and Copland's Third Symphony, featuring the theme from his Fanfare for the Common Man. On February 10, join Slatkin and Harrell immediately following the concert for a free AfterWords discussion about the music performed that night.
The console radio was the sole source of news from the warfront and of the music of big band broadcasts that turned living rooms into make-believe ballrooms. Honoring America's greatest generation, Radio Days re-creates a poignant time capsule of American life during the war years. Joining NSO Associate Conductor Emil de Cou and the NSO Pops, vocal ensemble Five by Design has meticulously crafted a musical retrospective of radio's golden age. Musical selections combined with celebrity "appearances" from big band leader Kay Kyser ("Roodlee Doo"), Betty Grable ("It's Been a Long, Long Time"), and the diva of the tutti-frutti hat, Carmen Miranda ("Tico, Tico"), take audiences on a glorious ride over the airwaves on February 24-26.
The American popular music of the 1940s receives a gala salute March 18 in the Concert Hall. That's when The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Series for Artistic Excellence presents Sentimental Journey: The Music of the 1940s with opera star Harolyn Blackwell, "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin, crooner Johnny Mathis, and country star Dwight Yoakam, all performing Tin Pan Alley classics, gospel, and country.
A glitzy melting pot of social classes and sounds, the cabaret culture of 1940s "Café Society" in New York's Greenwich Village mixed nobility with the masses, celebrities with sightseers, jazz and swing with pop and politics. The era also gave birth to the legendary nightclub of the same name‹the first racially integrated club in the United States, where every progressive musician dreamed of playing. In the KC Jazz Club, some of today's best entertainers from Broadway and Hollywood re-create this exciting period in American music history, including Billy Stritch (January 14-15), Allan Harris (January 20-21), Christine Andreas (February 10-12), Megan Mullally and her band Supreme Music Program (March 11-12), and Lorraine Feather and Shelly Berg (April 29).
A New America will also feature the spirited sounds of big band and jazz, seminal musical and theater works from 1940s Broadway, as well as the New York City Ballet and screenings of classic 1940s cinema.
For more information about these and the many other events occurring during A New America: The 1940s and the Arts, visit kennedy-center.org/forties.
Jeremy D. Birch is the writer and editor of Kennedy Center News.