Over 2,500 people pay tribute to Pau Casals at a concert in Washington

A tribute concert to the internationally renowned Catalan cellist and conductor Pau Casals took place in Washington DC. The memorable concert brought Marta Casals back to her husband’s performance in the White House in 1961, in front of President John F. Kennedy.

CNA / Ariadna Matamoros

January 26, 2011 11:28 PM

Washington (ACN) .- More than 2,500 people joined in a standing ovation on Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning Catalan time) when the tune known as ‘El cant dels ocells’ (“The Song of the Birds” in English) was played at a Pau Casals tribute concert in Washington. The traditional Catalan song was the last piece performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and the Trio, Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson. Back in 1961, it was also the last tune of the evening that Pau Casals played for the Kennedy family and 150 guests in the White House in 1961. The widow of the Catalan musician Marta Casals told the audience that the concert revitalised the meaning of the evening that they had treasured 50 years ago. She also reminded the audience of the important role musicians play in society.

Referring to the day when Pau Casals played for President Kennedy in the White House, Marta Casals, who was also there that evening, recalled that when her husband finished the concert more than 150 guests showed their appreciation to him in a “standing ovation”. Then Pau Casals got up, went over to President Kennedy and whispered in his ear that he would perform the song, “El cant dels ocells” (The Song of the Birds). “When he finished, there was a huge silence before yet another standing ovation”.

The stage director of the Kennedy Centre in the North American Capital is called Michael M. Kaiser. He was the host of this week’s concert that was organised in the framework of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy being sworn in as the 35th U.S. president. Kaiser pointed out how Pau Casals was not only one of the best musicians of the twentieth century, but also internationally renowned for his commitment to human rights and international affairs.

The two-hour concert was split into two acts. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio performed the exact same programme as Pau Casals played for Kennedy in the White House 50 years ago. This week's audience at the packed Kennedy Center heard pieces of Couperin, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

For many years, while in exile, Pau Casals expressed his opposition to the Franco dictatorship through the silence of his cello. The composer refused to play in any country that recognised the dictatorship. The exception came in 1961 when the Catalan composer accepted the invitation of President John F. Kennedy to play at the White House. The Catalan composer believed that President Kennedy was a young man who had other ideas. The musician even felt that he could connect with the words of U.S. president when he said: “We must consider the legacy of artistic action as an integral part of our free society”.

50 years ago, the crème de la crème of world politics and American culture of the time met at the White House to hear Pau Casals. At that time, the Catalan cellist was 84. Among the 150 guests were renowned musicians like Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski, as well as the chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Association, Anthony A. Bliss. To this day, critics praise Casals performance that evening as a culmination point in his long musical career.