Barbara Cook
The New York Times
Kennedy Center Honors Five Virtuosos

By Ashley Southall and Emmarie Huetteman
December 4, 2011
2011 Kennedy Center Honorees
On Nov. 29, 1962, a 7-year-old named Yo-Yo Ma gave a dazzling cello performance here at a televised concert that kicked off fund-raising efforts to build what is now the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

That connection came full circle this weekend, as a long roster of luminaries gathered at the White House and the State Department to celebrate the lives and careers of the five performers selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, including Mr. Ma, now 56.

Along with Mr. Ma, the actress Meryl Streep, the singer and songwriter Neil Diamond, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and Barbara Cook, the Broadway and cabaret singer, received the 34th annual honors for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.

On Sunday night, Herbie Hancock, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elmo and Robert De Niro, a 2009 Kennedy Center recipient, celebrated the event at a Kennedy Center gala, which is scheduled to be broadcast Dec. 27 on CBS.

At the reception on Sunday, President Obama illustrated the vast appeal of Mr. Diamond’s lyrics. “Everybody sings Neil Diamond songs,” he said, “no matter how many drinks they’ve had.”

The honorees accepted their medallions during a dinner at the State Department on Saturday night, applauded by guests including former President Bill Clinton, the actress Anne Hathaway, the comedian Stephen Colbert and the soprano Renee Fleming.

Colleagues, friends and — as Mr. Clinton, himself a saxophonist, described his relationship with Mr. Rollins — “just a fan,” offered toasts, praising the honorees for enduring at the top of their crafts.

Over a career that has spanned more than six decades, Mr. Rollins, 81, created a signature improvisational style with jazz standards like “St. Thomas” and “Oleo.”

The versatility that Ms. Streep, 62, has shown in roles including a Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice and a demanding fashion editor in The Devil Wears Prada, have earned her the most Academy Award nominations of any actress and the National Medal of Arts.

At the dinner, the writer and director Nora Ephron marveled at Ms. Streep’s ability to transform into the characters she portrays, offering a word of caution to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about Ms. Streep, who played Ms. Ephron in Heartburn.

“When you met her tonight — and I’m sure you thought she was charming — she was just soaking you up,” Ms. Ephron said. “And someday, you will see her in a movie about your life and discover the horrifying truth that she is better at being you than you are.”

The award comes during a big year for Mr. Diamond, 70, who was engaged in September and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March. He wrote “Sweet Caroline” for Caroline Kennedy after her father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, and the song has become the unofficial anthem of several major league sports teams.

Ms. Cook, 84, has been one of the premier interpreters of musical theater works since her breakthrough performance on Broadway in 1956 as Cunégonde in Candide.

At the gala on Sunday, Matthew Broderick recalled taking Ms. Parker to see Ms. Cook perform at the Café Carlyle early in their courtship.

“I don’t think he knew at the time the sort of special memory he was creating at the time for us,” said Ms. Parker, who has been married to Mr. Broderick for 14 years.

Mr. Broderick interrupted, “Oh, I knew.”

Mr. Colbert spoke glowingly of Mr. Ma on Saturday.

“He’s the greatest cellist in the world, but you can tell that that doesn’t really mean that much to him. What means something to him is actually playing the cello,” he said. “He’s above my critique.”
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