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President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton Salute Top Artists at 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors

Barack Obama Kennedy Center
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Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins and Meryl Streep were celebrated by diplomats and their fellow artists with tribute performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined in celebrating the top artists receiving the Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday while home for less than 36 hours between diplomatic travels.

Between her historic visit to Myanmar and a trip to Germany to discuss Afghanistan's future, Clinton hosted a dinner Saturday for some big names from Broadway, jazz, pop, classical music and Hollywood. On Sunday, Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins and Meryl Streep will also be saluted by President Barack Obama and their fellow artists with tribute performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

After visiting the isolated Southeast Asian country also known as Burma, Clinton said such U.S. artists have worldwide influence by using their freedom of creativity and expression. She said she met Burma's leading comedian and hip hop artist, who have been banned from performing for years.

"You may not know it, but somewhere in a little tiny room in Burma or even in North Korea, someone is desperately trying to hear you or to see you, to experience you," Clinton told the Kennedy Center crowd. "And if they are lucky enough to make that connection, it can literally change lives and countries."

Entertainers who have gathered for the event include Stephen Colbert, Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, Anne Hathaway and others. A surprise lineup of stars will perform as part of the nation's highest honor for those who have defined American culture through the arts.

CBS will broadcast a two-hour special on Dec. 27 at 9:00 pm EST.

In a toast to Streep on Saturday night at the State Department, writer Nora Ephron warned Clinton that the person who would someday play her on screen is the same woman who played Julia Child in Julie and Julia and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming The Iron Lady. Streep stood up for a better look at the nation's top diplomat.

"It's inevitable," Ephron told Clinton, drawing big laughs. "You met her tonight, and I'm sure you thought she was charming, but she was just soaking you up."

Streep, 62, has made more than 45 movies and won two Oscars in a career spanning Shakespeare to ABBA with the movie Mamma Mia! For her part, Streep said she is in awe of the accolades.

"Look where we are, look who's here," Streep told The Associated Press. "It's overwhelming. I feel very proud."

While in Washington, she has also met with women in Congress to push for a National Women's History Museum because, "as you'll notice, we don't have one," Streep said. She is working with organizers to try to secure a site on the National Mall.

Emily Blunt, a co-star from The Devil Wears Prada, said Streep is unique for her devotion to her characters, taking on parts of their personas.

"It's funny, I feel like when we were doing The Devil Wears Prada, she definitely adopted a certain cool on set, sort of remained very much in this reserved territory," Blunt said. "And then when my husband John (Krasinski) worked with her, she was playing a very vivacious, gregarious character, so she was just a ball of fun."

Diamond's familiar tunes, including "America" and "Cherry, Cherry" have had a defining impact on pop music. His song, "Sweet Caroline," written for presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy, is sung in ballparks and taverns. Coincidentally, Kennedy hosts the show Sunday night.

Lionel Richie told the AP that he got into the music business because he wanted to be Diamond.

"He's a great storyteller," Richie said, as with the hit single "America." ''He's not an acrobatic singer. Basically he told the story in a very simple voice."

Ma, one of the best-known classical musicians, has played the cello since he was 4. Now at 56, he is hailed as a musical ambassador whose work has spanned styles around the world from bluegrass to sounds from the Silk Road. His star power has drawn fans including Stephen Colbert, conductor John Williams and even Elmo from "Sesame Street."

"Thank God for Yo-Yo," said Sharon Robinson, a cello player who long played in a quartet with Ma, her husband Jaime Laredo and the late violinist Isaac Stern. "He has spread the love, proselytizing for all kinds of music, particularly classical music."

Cook, 84, made her Broadway debut in 1951 and later had her breakthrough in Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's "Candide." She topped that performance as Marian the Librarian in 1957's hit musical "The Music Man," for which she won a Tony Award.

Glenn Close called Cook an icon for anyone who has worked on Broadway, adding that Cook went on to a successful solo career and is still performing.

"I think we have the biggest respect for her because she really has survived, survived and prevailed," Close said.

Rollins, 81, is a jazz saxophonist who has shared the stage with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. He is one of the last surviving giants from the golden era of jazz.

Fellow sax player President Bill Clinton said he has been a fan since the age of 15 or 16 when he bought his first Rollins LP and played it until it was worn out. Then he spent time searching for an explanation of how Rollins could create such sounds.

"His music can bend your mind, it can break your heart, and it can make you laugh out loud," Clinton said. "He has done things with improvisation that really no one has ever done. In complexity and creativity, he rivals (John) Coltrane."