WASHINGTON - Thirteen days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Kennedy Center presented a Concert for America in an attempt to honor the victims and provide some comfort to all who mourned them. The event, with first lady Laura Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy as co-costs and a cross-section of classical and pop talent performing deeply meaningful music, seemed to come about almost spontaneously, like so many other gestures of solidarity during that awful, immediate aftermath.
A year later, a second Concert for America - a gathering "to remember and mourn, to honor and celebrate" - was taped Monday at the Kennedy Center. The first lady is back as honorary chair (Kennedy, and niece Caroline, are among the several guest speakers); the talent is again classical and pop, the music again largely message-laden.
If the result seems a little less moving and even a bit calculated when the concert airs at 9 tonight on WBAL, Channel 11, chalk that up to the effects of time and emotional distance. And perhaps a difference in the communicating source - that first concert reached a national audience via public television, the second on a commercial network, NBC, which isn't above slipping in a bit of self-advertising (NBC stars pop up live and on video; Tom Brokaw is the host.)
At least whatever reaches your TV screen tonight will look more cohesive than what Monday's large, invitation-only audience witnessed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where the proceedings were taped for editing into a two-hour broadcast. (A couple hundred more people watched a simulcast at the center's Eisenhower Theater.)
Brokaw's first duty was to announce that the second half of the program would be performed first. This meant that the finale - "America the Beautiful," sung in sumptuous voice by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, with most of the evening's other performers coming onstage for the last chorus - would occur prematurely. So would the closing remarks by President Bush and his wife, not to mention their goodbye waves and parting words of thanks to several participants who hadn't actually done anything yet.
The genial, veteran newscaster blamed the odd ordering on the vagaries of taping a TV show; it was also done to accommodate the president's schedule. He and most of his entourage - which included Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (separated by a wide aisle, as if to keep the speculation going on their differences over Iraq), and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice - didn't stay for the rest of the concert.
The unfortunate rearrangement in programming wasn't the only annoyance for the audience. Frequent delays, especially during the out-of-order first half, seemed to drain some enthusiasm out of the crowd, which included sizable contingents from the New York police and fire departments. The whole thing dragged on for more than three hours.
Of course, even if the concert had been smoothly organized and presented in fleet, proper sequence, the results would have been uneven - unavoidable in any variety-style format. But when the editors get through splicing and dicing, the show is likely to accomplish its mission with as much clarity as sincerity. There was, to be sure, lots of fine material on Monday, and not just of the musical kind.
Video segments (shown for the live audience on a large screen) offered comments from a cross-section of Americans about some of the feelings generated by 9/11. Filmed reminiscences by victims' spouses and children added poignancy; colorful film of the American landscape and post-9/11 gatherings effectively complemented several of the performances.
But the concert part of Concert for America is what counts most. There's no telling exactly how everything will come across on TV, or if some of the performances will get left out of the final broadcast, but here's how it sounded Monday.
The classical artists acquitted themselves well. In addition to Graves, whose restrained phrasing was as impressive as her vocal opulence, there was soprano Renee Fleming, swathed in yards of black fabric that she kept clutched to her throat, giving a lush-toned, compellingly shaded account of "You'll Never Walk Alone." Placido Domingo opened up his time-defying voice for a solid, if rather monochromatic, "Ave Maria."
The National Symphony Orchestra, led with typical attentiveness by music director Leonard Slatkin, provided supple support for those soloists and also delivered a glowing account of the closing portion of Copland's Appalachian Spring. Slatkin and an ensemble of NSO strings provided seamless backup for several of the pop stars as well. (Orchestra and conductor deserved more acknowledgement during the evening, and I hope Brokaw re-tapes his only, mispronounced mention of Slatkin's name.)
Newcomer Josh Groban, whose boyish looks and emotive voice have sent him on the star fast-track, offered an unusually successful ballad-style version of the National Anthem. And his earnest account of "To Where You Are" overcame the song's undistinguished melody and borderline trite lyrics to touch the heart of the concert's purpose eloquently - "I feel you all around me, the memories so clear."
Much more affecting, though, was young jazz artist Jane Monheit's performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It's not easy to get fresh mileage out of this classic, but Monheit and remarkably sensitive pianist Rob Mathes (the show's musical director) did just that. A disarming, telling moment.
Another old song that seemed filled with new connotations under the circumstances was the Beatles' "In My Life," receiving a gentle treatment from Gloria Estefan. Addressing 9/11 head-on in his ripped jeans and cowboy hat, Alan Jackson sang his hit "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."
Reba McEntire provided an engaging reminder that "This Land Is Your Land" and was likewise effective in "Teach Your Children Well." In a more subdued tone were India.Arie, whose "Good Man" from the soundtrack of We Were Soldiers certainly fit the times, and Enrique Iglesias, who offered "Hero" in his moody, clipped style.
Misfires included Chris Isaak's sudden burst of hard-driving music and tacky mugging for the crowd and some seemingly under-rehearsed numbers by the energetic Al Green, including a gospel song with backup from an ensemble from the U.S.S. John C. Stennis that never quite caught fire. But Green made up for any rough patches with a terrifically individualistic "Amazing Grace."
Guest speakers - all brief and tightly scripted - included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (filling in for Rudolph Giuliani, whose mother died Sunday), James Earl Jones, Lance Armstrong (his ovation rivaled that for the Bushes) and Hilary Swank.
Ultimately, though, the Concert for America was not so much about individuals as our collective cultural assets, which have always had a way of helping make difficult times more endurable.
What: Concert for America
When: 9 to 11 tonight
Where: WBAL, Channel 11
In brief: Denyce Graves, Alan Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Placido Domingo and other musicians commemorate Sept. 11.