By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Stevie Wonder knows from classics. Classical, too, as it turns out.
At the Library of Congress last night, the Motown legend spoke of a longtime "love for classical music" -- of listening to Stravinsky, Bach and Beethoven. And then Wonder ambled onstage at the library's Coolidge Auditorium and gave the world-premiere performance of "Sketches of a Life," a classical composition that he began writing in 1976, when he was still at the peak of his pop-songwriting powers.
Accompanied by a 21-piece chamber ensemble, Wonder alternated between piano, electric keyboard and his trusty harmonica during a largely autobiographical work in nine movements. His melodic gifts were on generous display during the nearly 20-minute piece, though the chords tended to be darker and more haunting than the ones Wonder usually writes. The music, though, was no less lyrical or soulful.
Wonder, 58, who was in Washington to receive the Library of Congress's second Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, presented "Sketches of a Life" as a musical commission from the library. (Paul Simon was the prize's first recipient in 2007.) Wonder had been sitting on the completed composition since the 1990s, and just needed an impetus to introduce it to the world, he said.
He's hardly a classical purist, of course: "Sketches" leaned at times toward pop show tunes and jazz. One movement was something like chamber funk, with Wonder vamping on the clavinet as the ensemble's sound swelled. Another segment was basically a blues-jazz instrumental, with Wonder taking off on a lyrical harmonica run over piano chords and a swaying beat -- all while jazz legend Herbie Hancock nodded his head in the audience.
Still, Wonder seemed comfortable with the form, and even displayed impressive restraint for a newcomer in the classical sandbox, staying away from bombast and saving the musical flyover for the triumphal, regal finale, which was full of horn fanfare.
On a scale of Billy Joel to Elvis Costello, it was Paul McCartney-plus. Meaning, Wonder is one of those pop guys who can do classical.
For an encore, Wonder returned to his strength and comfort zone, performing two of his pop classics : "Overjoyed" and "My Cherie Amour."
President Obama -- an ardent Wonder fan -- will present the Gershwin Prize to the musician at the White House tomorrow. A gala concert headlined by Wonder and featuring Tony Bennett, Martina McBride and Will.I.Am, among other artists, will be staged that night in the East Room. The event will be broadcast Thursday by PBS. The library said audio of the commissioned piece also would be posted soon on its Web site.
Said the librarian of Congress, James H. Billington: "This really will be Wonder week in Washington."