By ASHLEY SOUTHALL and EMMARIE HUETTEMAN
WASHINGTON — The lights were low in the concert hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday evening — except for a spotlight scouring the room in search of the elusive host of the spring gala. Moments before, a video reel had flashed clips of the No. 1 hits he has written or produced over nearly four decades in the music business, prompting applause, murmurs of recognition and even a little singing from those in the audience. In his introduction, the center’s chairman, David M. Rubenstein, had called him “the ultimate music man and the ultimate hit man.”
But where was the man of the evening, David Foster?
“I’m here!” he shouted from among the orchestra seats, breaking an awkward silence and shaking hands as he made his way to the stage.
Among a long roster of accomplishments that includes winning 16 Grammys, Mr. Foster, 62, is the man who produced Whitney Houston’s biggest hits from the 1992 film “The Bodyguard,” paired Natalie Cole with her father’s voice for a rerecording of “Unforgettable” and discovered Josh Groban and Michael Bublé. He is currently the chairman of Verve Music Group.
Playing to an audience of about 2,400 at the center’s annual gala, Mr. Foster struck a casual, intimate tone, worrying aloud that he might say the wrong thing and interacting with the stray audience member who chose the wrong moment to find the restroom. But that only seemed to please the audience more, who applauded appreciatively to his tales of the three ex-wives living on the spoils of his success, his way of introducing the songs that made him famous.
In addition to running through the highlights of his career — including songs like Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone” and Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” — Mr. Foster performed with a few famous friends, including Chaka Khan, Jewel and Peter Cincotti. The trumpeter Chris Botti, the violinist Caroline Campbell and the soprano Angel Blue also performed.
Fitting for an evening intended to raise money for arts education, Mr. Foster highlighted lesser-known artists. Among his guest stars were FernandoVarela, a Puerto Rican tenor he discovered on YouTube, and Bárbara Padilla, a Mexican-American soprano and a cancer survivor, who was runner-up on the fourth season of “America’s Got Talent.”
“I came to the United States looking for a second opinion, but I ended up with a scholarship to the University of Houston,” Ms. Padilla, who is in remission from Hodgkins lymphoma, said as she took the stage. “One thing led to another, and here I am.”
But Mr. Foster was still on the lookout for new talent, sweeping through the audience in search of participants for what he called “Kennedy Center Idol.” And if his theatrics are to be believed, then he just happened to pluck from the audience Schatar Sapphira, a reality show actress and aspiring singer, who belted out a few bars of “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Mr. Foster and friends also performed with the United States Military Wives Choir, a group of about 40 women whose husbands are active servicemen or military veterans.
“Film this, put it up and send it viral, because we want to get the message out that we support our men and women wherever they are,” he said, urging the audience to break out their smartphones. “It’s not political, it’s just support.”
The one-night fund-raiser, which closed with a performance of Mr. Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” featuring the Children’s Chorus of Maryland and the Bryn Mawr School Choir, brought in $2.4 million for the center’s arts, outreach and education programs, Mr. Rubenstein said.