Kennedy Center flings open its doors for 50th anniversary

New season celebrates the performing arts as a unifying and healing force.

It was a sight unseen in 18 months. Nearly 2,000 people gathered at the Kennedy Center’s Reach Plaza and lawn on Sunday to hear a live concert. The living memorial to a slain president is a bellwether for the arts community across the capital region now holding its breath as theaters reopen their doors to the public again. Could this be a sign of things to come?

On the eve of Labor Day 2021, a concert at Kennedy Center’s Reach Plaza was attended by nearly 2,000 people, an unprecedented crowd during the pandemic. Photo by Olivia Hampton.

The venerable institution marks its 50th anniversary this month, in conjunction with a major reopening push after a series of stops and starts that saw a lot more of the former than the latter. In a prequel to the reopening festivities, the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performed its annual free concert on the eve of Labor Day, relocated due to COVID-19 concerns from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to the plaza directly abutting the Kennedy Center’s 4.6-acre Reach campus, which opened just six months before the pandemic forced repeat closures.

“It was really powerful to see everyone again,” said Jaci Finch, who came with a large group of University of Texas students participating in the Archer Fellowship Program in Washington. “To be able to see everyone again and see that there’s hope to do this stuff again and hope for a normal future—even in a place like DC where there’s so many people—is really inspiring.”

Many audience members at the outdoor concert were unmasked. (Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan requires masks only inside.) Photo by Olivia Hampton.

This week and next week are packed with a wide range of outdoor experiences. A site-specific traditional South Indian dance co-commission by the Ragamala Dance Company joins other live performances, screenings, an arts market, and educational activities, including a collaborative public art piece conceived by outgoing education artist-in-residence Mo Willems. There will also be some ticketed indoors performances, at full capacity for the first time since the pandemic and in line with safety protocols developed with the Cleveland Clinic.

Spread across the entire campus, an immersive installation reflecting the five decades of the center’s history “transformed the center into a giant canvas,” in the words of Alicia Adams, vice president of dance and international programming.

An NSO concert September 10 marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks while also reflecting on pandemic losses and frontline workers. Under the baton of music director Gianandrea Noseda, the free program features guest appearances from General Colin Powell, National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band.

Violists chat before the concert. Photo by Olivia Hampton.

On September 14, a star-studded 50th anniversary celebration concert officially kicks off the center’s new season and the return of live audiences. Directed by Emmy Award winner Joshua Bergasse, the event featuring the NSO will include performances by Renée Fleming, Ben Folds, Punch Brothers, Keb’ Mo’, Christian McBride, and Rachael Price. “The chance to not only work on a performance like this, but to do it at the Kennedy Center and with this lineup of artists is really something special, especially after what I and everybody else have been through in the last 18 months,” Bergasse said in an interview. “I think we really want to just be the announcement that we’re coming back and the arts are still here; we’re here for everybody and we want everybody to support us and remember how beneficial and beautiful going to see live art can be.”

Under the clouds along the north bank of the Potomac River, the roar of airplanes flying overhead couldn’t dampen the crowd’s euphoria at hearing live music again on the eve of Labor Day. Rapturous applause, cheers, and standing ovations were on repeat throughout the performance of works by Duke Ellington, the Kennedy Center’s new composer-in-residence Carlos Simon, Jessie Montgomery, and Michael Abels bookended by “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

West Virginia Symphony music director Larry Loh, who conducted the orchestra, turned to the audience to clap in time. Photo by Olivia Hampton.

The programming hinted at the increased breadth and diversity of the upcoming season in an America gazing more intently in the mirror when asking “who are we?” Responding comprehensively but also coherently to that question is the challenge. The slate of upcoming shows demonstrates the critical role of the performing arts as a unifying and healing force.

The new season includes the premieres of eight social justice works from the center’s Cartography Project focused on race and discrimination, seven new NSO commissions, including a new symphony by Philip Glass and works by Mason Bates and Peter Boyer, as well as pieces by Missy Mazzoli, Angélica Negrón, Joan Tower, and James Lee III. There will also be four artist residencies and a new initiative aimed at identifying the next generation of cultural leaders. And young audiences will be treated to eight world premiere Kennedy Center commissions and co-commissions, including two stage adaptations of works by Willems’s successor Jacqueline Woodson and Beastgirl, based on a collection of folkloric poems by Elizabeth Acevedo.

In the second half of the Labor Day show, Kennedy Center artistic advisor Ben Folds directed the audience in performing with him and the orchestra as a massive backup humming chorale. Photo by Olivia Hampton.

“I can think of no better way to reemerge from the darkness of these last many months than to reopen with a vibrant, season-long celebration of the Center’s rich history and the bright future of the arts in our nation,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “We also want to continue shining a light on the future of the performing arts with works and initiatives that speak to the promise of America’s greatest asset—the human spirit and diversity of our artists.”

In the second half of the Labor Day show, Kennedy Center artistic advisor Ben Folds, a singer-songwriter adept at bending genres, directed the audience to perform as a massive backup chorale humming three different chords, leading to a minor third and a major fifth.

Rapturous applause, cheers, and standing ovations were on repeat throughout the performance. Photo by Olivia Hampton.

“The symbol for civilization is the symphony orchestra, so I think we need the symphony orchestra more now than ever,” said Folds, calling for more public support of an ensemble that has made a comeback as a top-caliber orchestra in recent years under Noseda. “So if you don’t come to the symphony all the time, I think you should start, come back and see everything that they do. My music is bad, but they are really good.”

View a full schedule of events for the first reopening week, from Thursday, September 9 through Saturday, September 11, here.

The following week revolves around National Dance Day, with events running Thursday, September 16 through Saturday, September 18. View the full schedule here.

Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan is here.


  1. I planned going to the LABOR day concert but found no information on your website regarding whether seating was being provided and total seats available. That was important to know in order to time one’s arrival. Also, even outside, with folks in such close proximity as shown in the photo, I think it prudent for the Center to extend its universal mask requirement indoors to the outdoor seating area. Unless you do I will not be atending any future outdoor seated performances. You do want to keep your clientel heatlhy and attending do you not?


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