In addition to awarding Wonder the Gershwin Prize, the Library offered him a commission for a new work. Playing the piano and electronic keyboard, and perhaps most memorably, the harmonica, Wonder joined a 21-piece chamber ensemble for the premiere performance of his pop-classical concerto titled “Sketches of a Life.” The performance took place in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on Monday evening, Feb. 23.
“This is another great moment in musical history,” proclaimed Librarian of Congress James H. Billington as Wonder joined a long list of distinguished composers, such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, who with Library commissions have created more than 500 works and introduced them to the musical world on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium over the past 80 years. (The concert is webcast on the Library’s Web site at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.)
Wonder revealed that the concerto was something he had been “fooling around with for years.” He started the work in 1976 and completed it in 1994, on the day Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. When he played it for the Librarian and producers of the Gershwin Prize, they all agreed on its suitability for the commissioned work.
The deeply personal work is a departure from Wonder’s vocal compositions, but reflects the influence of classical traditions. “I always loved classical music because the melodies were so haunting. They made me think and go places,” said Wonder.
Wonder followed the well-received new piece with his old favorites, “Overjoyed” and “My Cherie Amour.” And he delivered a heartfelt message to the overjoyed audience. “Today we celebrate what is, to me, a new America. It’s a new chance for Americans of various ethnicities to come together and say we can stand strong as a united people of the United States and be an influence… for people throughout the world. Yes, we most definitely can!
“We have the first African American president. But what is really exciting is that you have allowed me to see that you are able to see beyond color, to see the soul and the heart. You must encourage even those who are haters to say to others that we must come together today, because tomorrow is not promised to any of us.”
Two days later, on the evening of Feb. 25, Wonder received the bronze medal representing the Gershwin Prize from President Barack Obama, who along with First Lady Michelle Obama hosted Wonder in a Public Broadcasting Service “In Performance at the White House” concert, part of the series that began in 1978.
Wonder not only performed, but listened to renditions of his works by such music luminaries as Paul Simon, who was the inaugural recipient of the Gershwin Prize (Wonder performed then for Simon), Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, India Arie, Anita Johnson, Martina McBride and others in honor of his receipt of the country’s highest honor for popular song.
Michelle Obama recalled that Wonder’s “Talking Book” album, released in 1972, was the first record she ever bought. The album’s track titled “You and I” (performed later that evening by McBride) was the song the first couple chose for the first dance at their 1992 wedding.
“Had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me,” the president told the audience. “We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.”
President Obama thanked the Librarian, who was a guest, and all of the artists on the program. “Their performances represent the most accomplished Stevie Wonder cover band ever assembled,” he quipped. (The program, which aired on PBS stations nationwide on Feb. 26, can be viewed online at www.pbs.org/inperformanceatthewhitehouse/).
“It is fitting that we have assembled artists who draw upon so many musical styles—from gospel to hip-hop, jazz to country, R&B to opera,” Obama continued. “Stevie has always drawn on an incredible range of traditions in his music, creating a style that is uniquely American, uniquely his own and yet somehow universal. This could be called the ‘American tradition’—artists demonstrating the courage and talent to find new harmonies in the rich and dissonant sounds of the American experience. This is certainly in the spirit of the Gershwin Prize, named for George and Ira Gershwin who combined jazz and classical music into works of art that have become American classics.”
The president then bestowed the Gershwin Prize on “the one and only Stevie Wonder,” calling him “a true American master.”
“I accept this in memory of my mother,” said Wonder. “Lula Mae is smiling right now. If she was here she would offer the president some peach cobbler.”
On a serious note, Wonder expressed his excitement at having Barack Obama in the White House: “My children can live that dream that Dr. King talked about so long ago. If we put down our spirit of hate and open up our hearts to receive God’s ever-commitment of love, then we can be a united people of the world.”