The recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors won’t be announced until later this summer or early fall — indeed, the deliberations for who will be named are still ongoing. With that in mind, our critics weigh in with their own recommendations for who they think are most deserving of this prestigious acknowledgment of artistic achievement in the performing arts.
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For classical music fans, the Kennedy Center Honors are seen less as a privilege than as a right. In years when no classical musician is honored, a wave of indignation goes up from those who feel that the Kennedy Center is letting down the side, turning away from an art form that has always merited its recognition.
The question today is: Who are the musicians who truly touch us, who have influenced us as a society, at a time when there are fewer and fewer iconic performers? I believe the honors should be reserved for artists who have made a monumental and lasting contribution to the field, and all three of my nominees are continuing to do important, vital work — indeed, better than ever.
Because he is one of the most important living American composers. Because his music has by turns beguiled, lulled, delighted, outraged, threatened, offended and inspired a couple of generations of listeners. Because he was one pioneer of a distinctive American musical style, so-called minimalism, that has had a profound effect on most music written after it. Because he has worked thoughtfully, not always with equal success but with tremendous determination, in a wide range of musical genres, developing himself as an opera composer, symphonist, chamber musician, film composer, avant-garde creator. Because his music has a wider reach than almost any other so-called classical composer — people know the scores to the films “Koyaanisqatsi” or “The Hours” who have never ventured into a concert hall — and he’s achieved that without compromising or selling out. Because he is amazingly prolific as a result of simple hard work. Because he is now, in his 70s, mining a whole new vein of mellow beauty in his scores.
Because this cellist is the best-known, most versatile, most engaged classical music soloist in this country, and perhaps in the world. Because, rather than resting on his laurels and continuing to perform the same kinds of music in the same way, he has consistently stretched himself throughout his career, exploring a whole range of different kinds of music, actively promoting living composers and non-Western musical traditions, working to develop initiatives in education and audience expansion, building on his own preternatural affinity for people. Because given his stature, recognition and public role in this country and around the world, the fact that he hasn’t already gotten the Kennedy Center Honors seems like an oversight.
Because she is a visionary American artist who, without much regard for how she has been categorized (as a “choreographer,” as a “composer,” as “simple”) has continued to make important work since the 1960s. Because she is at once fearless, unique, uncompromising and yet builds human values into work that is never polemical, and that has communicated across genre boundaries long before “crossover” was even a term. Because her work in extended vocal techniques has played such a significant role in contemporary American music, and yet she has never been part of a school or movement, but remains a maverick in the truest sense. Because of the way she has gently penetrated the wider consciousness without ever standing on a soapbox or trying to force anyone to see things the way she does. Because of the way she has continued to broaden her artistic palette, embracing dance, movement, vocal music, orchestral works, opera, music theater — exploring each form and making it very much her own. Because of the way that each of her pieces is so vitally her, so vitally communicative, so vitally American. Because of her gentle commitment to bringing across what she wants to say.