Amid the tapestries and ornate decor of the Library of Congress, soul legend Stevie Wonder made his classical debut last night with “Sketches of My Life,” a chamber-music composition commissioned by the library featuring a 21-piece orchestra, two pianos, a synthesizer, a harmonica, and a harp.
“This is what we might call Wonder Week here in Washington, DC,” says Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, referring to the weeklong festivities in honor of Wonder, the second recipient of the library’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. “Stevie has created a very distinctive body of music that has become an important part of America’s fabric.”
For Wonder, who traded his traditionally vibrant outfits for orchestra black, the occasion was personal as well as public. In a press conference before the show, he told reporters how honored he felt to receive the commission from the Library of Congress, which provided him with talking books when he was growing up in Detroit. “Part of the rehearsal today made me realize how much I missed my mother,” he said. “In it I can hear her voice, I can hear my joy, I can hear my cry of missing her.” Along with Wonder’s wife, children, and brother, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd were among the audience at the Coolidge Auditorium. Hip-hop singer Will.i.am lurked backstage, occasionally peering out to watch as the orchestra tuned up.
“Sketches” was produced with the help of American Idol musical director Ricky Minor. “When Stevie calls, you don’t ask what or where,” Minor says. “You just say, ‘When?’ ” The piece, which incorporates multiple musical genres, not only affirms Wonder’s skill as a composer but also underscores his talents as a musician. A long harmonica section made the mouth organ appear as technically versatile and haunting as the orchestra’s other wind instruments, while Wonder’s performance on the synthesizer fused classical harpsichord with jazz. After the performance, he spoke briefly about his love for classical music and a neighbor who used to play opera when he was growing up: “I always loved classical music because the melodies were so haunting. They made me think and go places.”
But even as a child, Wonder admitted, he never dreamed that one of those places would be the Library of Congress, home to the world’s largest music collection: “I never imagined being here. I’m very thankful to God for this day.” Earlier, he had referred to President Barack Obama, who according to Billington is an “ardent fan.” Said Wonder: “All presidents look the same to me—black, white, red, brown, or yellow. What I look at is the soul and the heart. I’m convinced that if we use our hearts in the right way, we will experience miracles never imagined.”
After receiving a standing ovation for “Sketches,” Wonder returned to the stage with the help of Minor to perform “Overjoyed.” Then he asked the audience for help with backing vocals. “This is the Stevie Wonder class of voice at the Library of Congress,” he said. “You can’t mess up because everything you do becomes a permanent record.” The audience sang along and clapped as Wonder played “My Cherie Amour.”
“I’m extremely proud,” Wonder’s brother, Milton Hardaway, said after the show. “Tonight it seemed like appreciation on both sides: Stevie’s love for music and the people’s love for him.”