Keeping the Arts Sacred

Being a devout secular humanist and culture vulture, the annual ceremonial at the American Academy of Arts and Letters has always been my version of the High Holy Days, midnight Mass or even a pilgrimage to Mecca during Ramadan, depending on your perspective.

Like a grand cathedral or synagogue, the auditorium at the AAAL feels like a sacred space, a feeling no doubt heightened by the majesty of the building, the organ music in the background, and a program book that feels a little like a missal. During the proceedings, there’s also inevitably a very lengthy sermon that somehow attempts to tie the theme of the day to current events. And the trek up to 155th Street even feels like the Hajj since it’s not a usual commute for most folks except the lucky ones who live up in Washington Heights or Inwood.

To an outsider, the process for determining membership in the Academy feels as shrouded in mystery as how the Pope is determined by a conclave of cardinals at the Vatican. Although, I’ve yet to find a website that placed betting odds on whom the next AAAL inductees would be. (In fact, the AAAL just recently launched its own website!) But the analogy only goes so far. The ceremonial always ends with a reception filled with terrific hors d’oeuvres and a generously stocked open bar.

T. J. Anderson
T. J. Anderson
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Perhaps the most intellectually satisfying aspect of the annual ceremonial is how it brings together creators in the visual arts, literature, and music on equal terms. The award winners in all of the disciplines as well as the member composers, writers, and visual artists are even mixed together in a required seating arrangement facing the audience and specified on a detailed diagram in everyone’s program booklets. (I’m not joking.) Although being always centered on music first, I am somewhat disappointed that composers comprise the smallest number of inductees in the Academy. While the Academy inducted five new members in the department of art and two in literature at the ceremonial last Wednesday (May 18), only one new composer was admitted: T. J. Anderson. This makes 47 composers compared with 80 artists and 113 writers; less than 1/5th of the total membership. And this year’s gold medals, the Academy’s highest honor given exclusively to inductees, were awarded to two prominent women in other disciplines: essayist Joan Didion and painter Jane Freilicher.

Yet despite being in last place, music was still a significant part of the proceedings. In what was arguably one of the most moving parts of the entire ceremonial, 96 year-old AAAL member composer Elliott Carter presented the Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts to conductor James Levine who has been a great champion of the music of Carter and other modernists in his new role as music director of the Boston Symphony. Carter extolled Levine’s transformation of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra into a world class ensemble and singled out his courageous advocacy for Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the Met. Levine, breaking with tradition, asked for questions from the audience rather than giving a speech. The fact that one of the questions posed to him was “When are you going to program music by Stefan Wolpe?” was a reminder that this was not an ordinary audience.

Olly Wilson, who currently serves as one of the Academy’s two vice presidents for music (the other v.p. is Yehudi Wyner) presented the Academy Awards in music to composers Ross Bauer, Richard Festinger, David Glaser, and Matthew Greenbaum. The award offers composers a cash prize of $7500 plus an additional $7500 to be used toward a recording of their music.

Paul Yeon Lee
Paul Yeon Lee
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Former Academy president Ned Rorem presented the Walter Hinrichsen Award to Paul Yeon Lee. Named in honor of the late C.F. Peters founder, the award is the publication of a work by a mid-career composer. Two Goddard Lieberson Fellowships of $15,000 were presented by Mario Davidovsky to two composers with ties to the South: Allen Anderson, who is the head of composition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Alabama-native Roger Briggs who is currently professor of composition at Western Washington University.

Andrew Imbrie presented $15,000 Ives Fellowships to two mid-career composers—Edward Jacobs and Kurt Rohde—and Robert Beaser presented Ives scholarships to six student composers: Aaron Einbond, Ryan Anthony Francis, Shawn Hundley, Manly Romero, Sean Shepherd, and Matthew Tommasini.

Matthew Tommasini and Kurt Rohde
(L-R) Matthew Tommasini and Kurt Rohde
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Stephen Sondheim presented the Richard Rodgers Award for musical Theater, the only Academy Award that people can apply for directly, to three musicals: Bringers, featuring book and lyrics by David Hudson and music by Paul Libman; Broadcast, featuring book and lyrics by Nathan Christensen and music by Scott Murphy; and finally LINKEDTEXTHERERed, featuring a book by Marcus Stevens, music by Brian Lowdermilk, with lyrics co-written by Stevens and Lowdermilk. Lastly, Ezra Laderman presented the $5000 Marc Blitzstein Memorial Award for Musical Theater to Rinde Eckert who unfortunately was not there to accept the honor.

It goes without saying, that while I was disappointed not to see music have a more prominent role in this year’s ceremonial, I’m happy for each of the winners. I also always walk away inspired by something new I’ve discovered—a new writer, a new artist, a new idea. And this year was no exception. A highlight is wandering through the exhibition featuring work by Academy Award-winning visual artists open during the reception. This year, I fell in love with Judith Murray‘s giant paintings. Her approach to color felt like the visual equivalent of Debussy-esque harmonies orchestrated by Ligeti.

Edward Jacobs, Manly Romero, Matthew Greenbaum, and David Glaser
(L-R) Edward Jacobs, Manly Romero, Matthew Greenbaum, and David Glaser
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

But perhaps what will stick with me the most were the opening remarks by current Academy president Philip Pearlstein, who suggested that people in the arts should consider rethinking the importance of teaching in their careers. Rather than just being the source of a job for an artist in a world where art is not always financial viable, the university system has proven itself to be the key nurturer for ideas in our society. The old cliché “those who can’t do, teach,” which initially made people feel ashamed to be teachers, has left an ominous legacy: we’re forgetting how to learn.