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A Hot Gala Launches the Nordic Cool Festival at the Kennedy Center (Photos)

The white-tie-and-tails event signaled the debut of the monthlong exhibition of Nordic culture.

The Kennedy Center during Nordic Cool. Photograph by Margot Schulman.

All that was missing from the Nordic Cool gala on Tuesday night, to make it completely Scandinavian, was a sauna. But then there’s probably not a sauna at the annual Nobel Prize dinner in Stockholm, either, and the Kennedy Center soiree was modeled on that august event. As with the Nobel dinner, the dress was white tie, tails, medals, and national dress, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra performed, the floral designer for the Nobel dinner did the flowers, there were two long candlelit “king’s tables,” and the meal highlighted Scandinavian cuisine.

We asked our Danish dinner partner if back home, the traditional sauna would be indulged in before or after dinner. Benedicte Brocks, who is with Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, laughed and cited her Viking heritage. “Probably both, but to perform the ritual here we would need a lake where we could make a hole in the ice,” she said. Which is probably why the party didn’t need a sauna to be a hit or to add heat to the Nordic cool.

The colorful and cheerful evening had a guest list of 550 people, including the ambassadors from or to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, the Faroe and Åland Islands, an assortment of those countries’ ministers, US government officials, Kennedy Center trustees, corporate representatives, and two actual Nobel laureates: economists Dale T. Mortensen and Roger Myerson. The hosts were its cochairs, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and Glen Nelson; the welcoming and speaking responsibilities fell to Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, wearing his Order of the Aztec Eagle medal, and its board chairman, David Rubenstein. The event launched a monthlong Kennedy Center festival of Nordic culture: theater, dance, music, visual arts, literature, design, cuisine, and film. More than 750 artists have been involved in bringing it all together.

Guests could tell the evening would be a cut above the norm as they drove up to the Kennedy Center and noticed that the venue itself got dressed up for the occasion—the entire building was bathed in impressive blue and fuchsia lights designed to replicate the aurora borealis, also known as the Northern lights. Inside the Hall of States, the arriving guests were dwarfed by a stunning floor-to-ceiling Finnish installation of one thousand shirts donated by DC residents, hanging in the shape of a boat. Artist Kaarina Kaikkonen calls her design ”Are We Still Afloat?” It’s so overwhelming and amusing that thoughts of laundry are quickly arrived at and dispelled.

The reception on the rooftop terrace was for cocktails, canapes, and a chance to view the main Nordic Cool exhibition: room after room of displays that include mannequins adorned with provocative fashions from Iceland (Björk’s infamous swan dress from the 2001 Oscars hailed from the same country), an interactive installation that provides the roaring sound and fluid visuals of waterfalls, plywood sculptures from the design firm Snøhetta, striking large-scale pieces from the Louisiana Museum, and a dozen or more Lego play tables for, as the program put it, “kids of all ages.” We noticed a woman in a red evening dress and with a forearm tattoo (not sure if it was a dragon), studiously focused on the Lego table.

Waiters passed trays of smoked salmon, caviar, fish, and meatballs that provided a first taste of the evening’s culinary fare—all of it, from canapes to dessert, under the supervision of Morten Sohlberg, who owns the Smörgås chain of restaurants in New York and New Jersey, as well as Blenheim Hill Farm, a 150-acre farm near the Catskills that provides the vegetables and meat for the restaurants. With the exception of the crabmeat served as a first course, the Blenheim farm was the source of the evening’s food: the pork and beef in the incredible Swedish meatballs, the potatoes, vegetables, and herbs, the special rye bread, and the lamb served three ways as the main course.

“It’s the first time whole carcasses have been brought into the Kennedy Center,” Sohlberg said of the three-day process of preparing the meal, adding, “It’s also the first time whole carcasses have been butchered at the Kennedy Center.” It was worth the effort, because the meal was exceptional, praised all around, and a departure from the typical gala menu. The finale was a dessert that actually glowed from within: a mound of maple spun sugar surrounded by bite-size mousses and meringues, adorned with black currants, lingonberries, elderflower, and sea buckthorn.

The food itself was entertainment enough, but there were also performances and speeches between courses. A full choir performed a native song, a trio of sisters sang traditional folk tunes that sounded almost Native American, and pianist Víkingur Ólafsson roused the room as the clock moved toward midnight.

“I’m particularly pleased to be the chairman of the Kennedy Center at this time,” said David Rubenstein, “because I have spent a number of days and weeks, in many cases, in Nordic countries… . I always enjoy the culture and the people, and the friendliness and the ties they have with the United States. This festival really brings that together.”

Rubenstein made light of the dress code for the evening. “I’m the only person here in white tie and tails without a medal,” he said. “I’ve never earned a medal, but I hope someday to get a medal I can wear with white tie and tails.” Later, though, he indicated he might not race to that occasion. Asked how he felt in the outfit’s required components—a crisp pique shirt, a white bow tie, a snug white waistcoat, a starched wing collar, and the tailcoat—Rubenstein confessed, “It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever worn.”

He could always take a pointer from perhaps the evening’s coolest dresser, Swedish florist Gunnar Kaj, who created beguiling arrangements of poppies, begonias, fuchsia, and tulips for the reception, concert, and dinner. He dressed in native Swedish formal attire, complete with buckled shoes, knee socks, breeches, a red vest, tails, a white shirt with red appliqués, and a blue tie.

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