While Meryl Streep won’t know till February whether she has finally won that elusive third Oscar, she is to be among those feted in December with one of the most prestigious prizes in the performing arts — the Kennedy Center Honor. The others to be celebrated are singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, stage star Barbara Cook, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and saxophonist/composer Sonny Rollins.
In making the announcement, Center chairman David M. Rubenstein said, “This year, the Kennedy Center selects five extraordinary individuals whose collective artistry has contributed significantly to the cultural life of our nation and the world.”
He extolled the virtues of each honoree as follows: “With her sublime voice and rich performances, Barbara Cook has defined all that is best and brightest in the Great American Songbook. Neil Diamond’s songwriting genius has created one of the most enduring catalogs of American popular music and his live performances have captivated audiences for five decades. Yo-Yo Ma’s sterling musicianship makes him one of the most versatile and popular classical music performers in the world, and his Silk Road Project has inspired students across the world to love and honor music. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ masterful improvisation and powerful presence have infused the truly American art form of jazz with passion and energy. The sheer brilliance and breadth of Meryl Streep’s performances count as one of the most exhilarating cultural spectacles of our time.”
The Honors will be presented on Dec. 3 during a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The following night, there is a White House reception and then a gala tribute at the Kennedy Center. George Stevens Jr., who created the Honors in 1978 with Nick Vanoff, is slated to produce and co-write the show for the 34th time. The taped kudoscast will air on CBS on Dec. 27.
The longtime holiday programming staple is a six-time Emmy Award-winner for Best Variety Special, including the last two years in a row. Last year’s edition of the Honors is contending for Best Variety Special at next Sunday’s Primetime Emmys. Stevens and his producing partner Michael Stevens have shared in this award twice and this marks their fifth consecutive bid.
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The Kennedy Center Honors began in 1978, seven years after the living memorial to President Kennedy opened on the banks of the Potomac in the nation’s capital. Since then, the kudos have taken on the aura of the country’s highest tribute to artists.
Appropriately enough, Richard Rodgers – the first person to achieve the awards grand slam by winning all four big showbiz kudos (Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony) – was among the first five artists inducted into this hall of fame. (The others were opera pioneer Marian Anderson, dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire, choreographer George Balanchine, and pianist Arthur Rubenstein.) Since then, there have been another 163 artists honored (usually five per year but occasionally six, such as two years ago when a team was feted). Among them have been just two other grand slam champs — Helen Hayes (1981) and Mike Nichols (2003).
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