What if someone told you that there were FREE world-class performances offered virtually every night of the year in DC?
Well, it's true -- just come to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center at six o'clock on any given evening. For over twelve years, the Kennedy Center has lined up an incredible array of performers, ranging from youth orchestra members to stars of international stature. One night there might be ballet; another a chamber music ensemble; and yet another it might be reggae or blues or some type of music you've never even heard of. Often various cultural ministries sponsor top-notch performers from their countries, not to mention groups or performers in town for the many different festivals held throughout the year, such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and Cherry Blossom Festival.
The performances, which are generally held on a stage at one end of the Grand Foyer, run from 6 pm to 7 pm and are done as one continuous set. If you have tickets for an evening event at the Kennedy Center, you might want to consider coming early if there's something on of interest. Most of the times I've gone to the Millennium Stage, however, it has been just to see a particular performer or group.
Take, for example, one of the most memorable concerts I've ever seen, by Portuguese fadista Mariza. This was back about seven years ago, before she became a big sensation here in the U.S. as well as in Portugal. Mariza is a riveting chanteuse, and seeing her in the relatively intimate Millennium Stage setting was an incredible opportunity, not to mention that the audience was filled with enthusiastic fado fans from Portugal and other European countries. This sort of appreciative international audience is one of the things that I enjoy most about Washington, where word quickly goes out to ex-pat communities anytime there are performers from "back home" (wherever that might be).
I try to keep an eye on who's coming to the Millennium Stage, which isn't hard as they have a monthly e-mail listing of all upcoming performances, but on occasion something slips by that I later kick myself for missing. Such was the case when I was wowed by Argentinian chamamé accordionist Chango Spasiuk at a festival in San Antonio in 2007, only to find that he'd been at the Millennium Stage just the week before. (I'm overcompensating, perhaps, by going to hear him again at Carnegie Hall next month.)
This very evening was another memorable outing, to hear Hungarian singer Beáta Palya, a rising star with a grounding in an impressive variety of vocal traditions. I arrived early, knowing that the Hungarian community would be out in full force for this special concert -- she'd just performed a little over a week ago Carnegie Hall, but here in DC it was a more intimate affair, with local luminaries such as the Hungarian Ambassador and the Minister of Culture on hand. Palya's set was a bravura performance, encompassing everything from Transylvanian folk melodies to an offbeat fusion of throat singing (by her accompanist) and a rhythmic, almost percussive form of Roma ('gypsy') singing that involves inventive improvisations done at dizzying speed.
Another memorable performance was by the Silk Road Dance Company, a group that performs dances from the Arab and Middle Eastern world. (Actually, I've been to see them twice, but I'll just describe the most recent event.) While many people have a stereotyped image of nothing but belly dancing emanating from this part of the world, this troupe does a wonderful job of showing the diversity and refinement -- but also playfulness -- of dance traditions from places such as Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. At this performance, I was lucky to find a spot right under the stage (sitting on the floor, in fact, as the hall was packed), and got a few good photos I've uploaded to this site.
If there's one downside to these concerts, it's that getting to and parking at the Kennedy Center can be a bit problematic. We were aghast a few weeks ago to find that the fee for the Kennedy Center garage had gone up to $17 regardless of whether you stayed for just the hour-long performance or the entire evening. There's parking at the nearby Watergate complex, but it's also on the steep site.
Meantime, parking on the surrounding streets can be hard to find unless you come early on the weekends. The nearest Metro station is Foggy Bottom/GWU, but it's about a 10-15 minute walk to the Kennedy Center, and it's not a very straightforward route, or at least I've gotten turned around on several occasions. There is a shuttle that runs back and forth between the Metro station and the Kennedy Center, but it tends to fill quickly, especially at the end of the performance.
Looking for alternatives, for this evening's performance I took the #80 Metro bus from H St. in Chinatown for just a dollar and was deposited directly in front of the hall (see the WMATA website for details of this route). This is a nice choice if you're coming from and returning to an area closer to the Mall, H Street, or Union Station.
One last thing -- virtually every performance at the Millennium Stage has been videotaped for posterity and can be streamed from the Kennedy Center's website. You can view any of the thousands of events that have been offered ever since the Millennium Stage program began back in 1997.