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Under bright and sunny skies on Tuesday, October 11, Tercentenary Theatre was a frenzy of carpenters, electricians, and riggers making ready for a Harvard Big Event—but not the customary formalities of Commencement, with its rows of chairs for 30,000 seated guests. Instead, the workers were constructing a huge dance stage in front of the Memorial Church steps; completing a circular platform where Yo-Yo Ma ’76, D.Mus. ’91 (profiled here), will perform; securing the stand where Joanne Chang ’91 will assemble an enormous 15-by-18-foot H-shaped red velvet (for Crimson) birthday cake; performers’ platforms; serving stations for desserts and beverages for a crowd of some thousands of revelers; and projection screens and lighting stands for Harvard’s 375th anniversary celebration this Friday evening.

Meanwhile, one anniversary feature is already up and running: a set of 10 speakers, hung from trees in the Old Yard, broadcasting “Harvard Voices.” The voices, introduced by Richard Tarrant, Pope professor of the Latin language and literature, who coaches the student speakers at Commencement, harken back to decisive moments like the Marshall Plan address at Commencement in 1947, and forward to more recent highlights such as the appearances of Bill Gates ’77, LL.D. ’07, J.K. Rowling, D. Litt. ’08, Al Gore ’69, LL.D. ’94, Nelson Mandela, LL.D. ’98, and the late Edward M. Kennedy ’54, LL.D. ’08.

Come Friday, what will animate all the elaborate staging and equipment, according to its de facto CEO, University marshal Jackie O’Neill, is the presence of Harvard people—faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents (it is the visiting weekend for freshman parents), members of the Governing Boards—convening for a “family birthday party.” The celebration is heavily student-centric, in contrast to some of Harvard’s more formal occasions and events; and there are plenty of party-like enticements, from food and beverages to entertainment (and even blacklights to make dancers’ white shirts and suitable decorations glow in the dark of the autumn night).

To that end, three streams of community members will parade into Tercentenary Theatre, beginning around 6:30 p.m.:

  • undergraduates, following meals featuring vintage food (think autumn harvest root crops) in their Houses, and presumably showing their House spirit and identities;
  • graduate and professional schools, in order of their founding, from oldest (Medical School) to such recent newcomers as the Graduate School of Design and Harvard Kennedy School (each celebrating its 75th anniversary) to the Radcliffe Institute and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (2007); and
  • alumni, who are in Cambridge for the Harvard Alumni Association fall meeting.

The first two processions are expected to be reviewed by President Drew Faust, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Michael Smith, and members of the Governing Boards as they pass Widener Library’s steps.

As they arrive, all guests will be invited to get into the festive spirit as they meet student greeters, encounter dozens of student performing groups, and partake of desserts and beverages with Harvard ties, ranging from Taza chocolate treats and an ice-cream station to the alumni-founded Harpoon Brewery’s 1636 ale (served in the Queens Head Pub and Faculty Club on campus) to seventeenth-century vintage apples (Roxbury Russets, Newtown Pippins, and Esopus Spitzenburgs) and cider courtesy of the Massachusetts orchard of Eric Chivian, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

At around 8:00, the plan calls for Tercentenary Theatre to go dark, and then for performances from the Memorial Church platform by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and the Holden Choirs (each under the direction of new leaders, respectively Federico Cortese and Andrew Clark), with an accompanying slide show of historic Harvard images and contemporary photographs like those in the 375th anniversary book, Explore Harvard.

Following those performances, Yo-Yo Ma, in the center of the Theatre, will play a piece, and then be joined by President Drew Faust and Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds for a segue to the cutting of the cake—the prelude to an evening of dance and entertainments introduced and encouraged by student performers, with the dancers choreographed by Jill Johnson, the new director of dance. (That group rehearsed on Tuesday in front of the Science Center.)

Further information on the celebration is available at Harvard Magazine’s 375th anniversary page and the University’s anniversary site.

Whether you are present or attending only in spirit, you can make a contribution to the celebratory events by performing an anti-rain dance before Friday. Just in case, O’Neill says, the University has laid in its customary supply of plastic ponchos.