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July 21, 2010

Kennedy Center's 'American Playlist' mixes National Symphony, John Mayer, Smokey Robinson, more

John Mayer
Well, that was different. And fun, too.

Tuesday's finale of "An American Playlist," the Kennedy Center's three-night celebration of the arts, brought together different generations and genres for one quirky, sometimes awkward, always entertaining concert.

Outside of awards shows, how often do Smokey Robinson and John Mayer appear on the same stage, let alone with the National Symphony Orchestra as backup band? And, outside of radio channel-surfing, when was the last time you heard Puccini's "O mio babbino caro," Darius Milhaud's "Scaramouche" for saxophone and orchestra, and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" within minutes of each other?

The three free concerts -- music and poetry were the focus Sunday, dance and jazz Monday -- were put together as a celebration of the performing arts, pegged to the conclusion of Kennedy Center president a nonprofit guru in excelsis Michael Kaiser's 50-state (plus Puerto Rico) tour to help promote ways for arts groups to survive the crippling recession. In remarks to the crowd on Tuesday, Kaiser also put in a plug for the Center's valuable program to hone the skills of arts managers around the country.

Later, the stars took time to tout the value of arts education. Mayer got a great laugh recalling

how he "attended the Berklee College of Music" -- effective pause -- "for one year." But, hey, that still made him "a product of arts education." All young people, he added, should have a chance to find out where their artistic talents might be. Robinson urged everyone to help "get the arts back into our schools."

The audience, which responded enthusiastically to all the preaching to the choir, also ate up the music. There's no way this "Evening of Classical Works and Popular Song" (do you think a committee came up with that title?) could make perfect aesthetic sense. And there was also no way the democratically apportioned program could have left anyone feeling sated. In the end, you just had to go with the flow.

Robinson, sounding a little grainy on the high notes, still produced vintage vocal magic, and not just in his own classic, "Tracks of My Tears." He also offered a richly expressive cover of the Norah Jones hit "Don't Know Why."

Mayer, accompanying himself on guitar, charged into "Waiting on the World to Change" with his strong, earthy voice. Then, with the NSO discreetly filling out the harmonies, Mayer delivered a grittily expressive account of "Don't Think Twice." (Mayer joked about the novelty of being "surrounded by people who can truly read music.")

The elegant soprano Harolyn Blackwell was in mostly radiant (and, regrettably, amplified) voice for "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the Puccini aria. There was room, too, on the bill for the NEWorks Tribute Singers, a hearty ensemble of high school and college students, who generated some "Glee"-like enthusiasm to redeem an otherwise sappy number called "Life's Inspired by a Song."

The NSO was nimbly led by Sarah Hicks in the pop songs, and by Hugh Wolff in the classical bits, including the Milhaud work, with the typically suave Branford Marsalis as soloist. The orchestra-only items, clearly and sensibly geared to the kind of mixed turnout for something like this, were all rhythmically punchy: John Adams' "Short Ride on a Fast Machine," "Michael Daugherty's "Route 66" and the "Hoe-down" from Copland's "Rodeo."

Given that an off-stage announcer provided some introductions of artists, it would have been nice for the same voice to alert listeners to the music on the program, especially the orchestral pieces that, surely, were new to many folks in the hall. (The printed program for this American Playlist lacked a playlist.)

A little more rehearsal would no doubt have helped the event, too, and not just artistically. The final curtain call for the performers didn't come off as intended (Wolff had to yell out to the audience that it was time to give the assembled forces another hand). But, like I said, it was better to go with the flow.

Pictured: John Mayer, photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:44 AM | | Comments (1)


All I can say,
About the performance,
I saw that day.
It was simply marvelous.
I wish you may,
have a real chance,
to watch and you’ll reply,
That it’s just fabulous.

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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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