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Kennedy Center starts free performances with top pop musicians

February 28, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the capital’s cultural command post, sheds its pricey image Saturday when it begins offering free concerts every day but Christmas.

``It won’t be the New York Philharmonic or Itzhak Perlman,″ says the center’s director, Lawrence Wilker, but expect ``solid professionals, mostly on their way up.″

The center is trying to appeal to a general audience, not just the $225-a-ticket opera buff or the $65-a-seat concert goer.

The first free program Saturday is ``Three Generations of Jazz,″ with well-known guitarist Charlie Byrd and the Billy Taylor Trio. Also performing will be the Orff Ensemble, a group of Virginia fourth-graders who will play music for children written in the 1940s by German composer Carl Orff _ known to classical music-lovers for his often performed ``Carmina Burana.″

``There’ll be a lot of people coming from Alexandria,″ predicted Wes McCune, who directs the ensemble at the John Adams Elementary School in the nearby Virginia city.

Sunday, the free programs feature ``A Tribute to Tap.″ On Monday visitors can get a taste of more classical nourishment, including excepts from operas _ Giuseppe Verdi’s ``La Traviata″ and the ``Elektra″ of Richard Strauss. Later there will be choirs, pianists and chamber music.

Thousands of people visit the Kennedy Center every day _ 4 million to 5 million a year, the staff estimates. But fewer than half remain for a play, film, opera or concert.

``For them, it’s just a visit to a presidential memorial,″ said Kennedy board chairman James A. Johnson.

To broaden its appeal, the Kennedy Center offered some half-price tickets for same-day shows, but few people knew about these. Students, senior citizens, the disabled and military personnel could buy them at the box office, but others had to go to the nearby George Washington University.

This summer, a new bargain-ticket office will open at the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, about halfway between the Capitol and the White House, for the Kennedy Center and other Washington theaters.

But the daily, hour-long free shows start Saturday at 6 p.m. in the large lobby, called the Grand Foyer, which is dominated by a huge sculpted head of President Kennedy. It stretches the length of more than two football fields.

``We have stages at both ends and eventually we may have two shows going on at the same time,″ said Wilker, who expects audiences of 700 to 1,000.

Some seats will be provided but most will have to stand.

The Kennedy Center this week has been trying to entice both Washingtonians and visitors, including full-page ads in newspapers, notices on radio and television and fliers distributed in hotels.

``People have been hearing the radio ads and calling in to ask `Who’s on?′ ″ said Mary Johnson of the center’s public relations staff.

The freebies are timed to end before regular nightly performances start in the center’s concert hall, opera house and theaters _ encouraging the audience to buy a ticket for more or stay to have dinner at the center’s restaurants.

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