What’s a crowd of ball-goers to do in the face of a possible federal government shutdown? If you are the hosts and patrons of the 83rd annual Washington National Symphony Ball, the show must go on. And not without reason—this year’s ball, held Sunday night, raised $1.3 million. In a moment when words such as essential and nonessential are in the dialogue, private funds help keep arts institutions such as the NSO alive.
None of this is lost on David Rubenstein, the cofounder of the Carlyle Group private equity powerhouse and the chairman of the Kennedy Center. He shared some good news: The concert hall where the symphony performs just got a paint job, which was completed soon before the ball. In the event of a government shutdown, painting of the Kennedy Center would be halted, as well as tours—but as it relies largely on private funds, performances will go on regardless.
Rubenstein added that while it might appear the NSO’s brain trust picked the date for the gala in some prescient way, knowing there might be a shutdown, in truth the date was decided a year ago. Guests arrived at 6 o’clock in gowns and black tie, and milled on the terrace for an hour before the show, enjoying Manhattans and smoked salmon canapés as they took in dramatic sunset views of the Potomac. Among them were Supreme Court justices, ambassadors, members of Congress, and loyal and generous patrons of the arts.
The crowd settled into their seats for a concert that began with a rousing rendition of the national anthem and included two works by Tchaikovsky, a sampling of Bizet’s Carmen, and a finale of Saint-Saëns. In the first half, the orchestra and conductor Christoph Eschenbach were joined by the irrepressible Yo-Yo Ma, the acclaimed cellist who is beloved in Washington. His performance was so physically vigorous it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had bounced off his performance platform. He rocks and rolls even in the most technically demanding of classical interpretations, or maybe because.
The guest star in the second half, keyboardist Cameron Carpenter, channeled rock-and-roll thanks to his half-shaved head with a retro high-top fade. What had people gasping, though, was his commanding performance on the Rubenstein Family Organ, a 40th anniversary gift to the NSO from David Rubenstein. The Kennedy Center is not exaggerating when it describes the organ as having “scale and heft”—its sound, particularly at Carpenter’s hand, creates a body buzz.
The seated dinner, in a nearly transparent tent only steps from the concert hall, continued to stimulate the senses. From inside the tent, ball-goers could see a wall of the Kennedy Center painted with a Monet-esque mosaic of lights that echoed the aqua, fuchsia, red, gold, and green of the flower arrangements and table settings. There were candles perched on “floating” driftwood or hanging from the ceiling on platforms, and a dance orchestra. Some couples took a spin right away; others waited until after dinner. The menu, served at close to 10—on a weeknight, no less—was a first course of caramelized figs, orange slices, and goat cheese with pine nuts, followed by loin of lamb on a bed of cannoli rice with squash and mint salad, and a dessert of meringue, peaches, and shortbread.
The clock ticked toward the later hours—and despite what Monday might bring, when we departed, the dance floor was still full.