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September 9, 2009

Opera great Grace Bumbry to receive 2009 Kennedy Center Honor

The list of Kennedy Center Honors for 2009 is slanted toward the pop culture fields -- Mel Brooks (movies, Broadway), Dave Brubeck (jazz), Bruce Springsteen (rock), Robert de Niro (movies). But holding up the classical side with great distinction will be soprano Grace Bumbry, an artist who generated quite a lot of electricity in the heyday of her operatic career, which was really two careers -- initially a mezzo, she made a successful transition to soprano.

Bumbry helped break down barriers against vocal artists of colors; she was the first black singer to perform at the Bayreuth Festival, in 1961. Her versatility in repertoire, her musicianship and potent personality proved to be a dynamic combination that earned her a hearty fan base. Bumbry has long worn the mantle of "diva" with ease, style and (no pun intended) grace. Excellent choice, Kennedy Center Honors nominating folks.

Here's a sample of Bumbry's talent,

singing one of the beloved anthems of divahood, "Io son lĀ“umile ancella," from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur." (Translation: "I am the humble servant of the creative genius.") The sync between audio and video may not be perfect in this clip, but the singing is divine.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:42 AM | | Comments (7)


What a terrific choice. Bumbry had a glorious instrument and an important, lengthy international career. In this video, she nails this aria like it's the easiest thing in the world. A well deserved honor for a very talented singer!

Glad you liked it. I confess I had never heard her sing that aria, and this clip impressed me greatly. You'd never know from those lovely top notes that she was ever a mezzo. And what gorgeous phrasing. TIM

Congratulations on the selection of a great "Diva".

Brubeck? Pop culture??

Love your stuff, but I think he goes beyond pop!

Keep up the good work...we often mine your stories for my show.

I guess I did get a little careless there, but, hey, if you divide the world into pop and classical, he'd be pop. (I'm setting aside his oratorios, which, I suspect, played little role in his selection for this award.)

When will they get around to honoring Barbara Cook?? She has done so much for Musical Theater,for keepimg alive the great standards, always with glorious interpretations, and above all, for The Kennedy Center.
Time is getting short, nominators, get on the ball!

Amen. TIM

The Kennedy Center Honors try to hit all the arts, at least in principle, so there's no sense of "sidelining" for classical in this context. Great choice of Ms. Bumbry here, no doubt.

It's too bad in past years that they didn't get to honoring Tito Puente in time, for one. I'm glad they got to Dave Brubeck by now, as I'd have thought he'd have gotten it earlier.

She is one of the greatest operatic stars of her time. I discovered her a few decades back in Glasgow Royal Theater. Feeling with grace(pun on her name) and projection with great vocal holding skills.

Watching her mini-expose alongside Bruce Springsteen, Mel Brooks, and Dave Brubeck (presented by Herbie Hancock) was inspiring. I had never heard of her before. Her tone is heaven-sent. It immediately made me think, I am going to listen more to this goddess. :)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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