My friends at WETA TV 26 are probably thrilled to the gills because they’re at the White House right now taping the first “In Performance at the White House” for the Obama Presidency. Presdient Obama presents Stevie Wonder with the second Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song named for song writers George and Ira Gershwin.
The production team of this special (officially titled) “In Performance at the White House – Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize” will edit everything but the title down to a one-hour special to broadcast the following night, Friday, February 26 at 8 PM, on PBS. Joining Stevie Wonder, the President and Mrs. Obama in the East Wing to celebrate in song are Tony Bennett, Wayne Brady, Anita Johnson, Diana Krall, Mary Mary, Martina McBride, Rickey Minor, Paul Simon, Esperanza Spalding and Will.i.am.
What’s very interesting about Stevie Wonder’s Washington, DC visit (and he’s no stranger in town) is that the Library of Congress commissioned Wonder to compose a new work — and it’s not in the pop genre. Monday, NPR aired a short story announcing that this new composition would be a departure from the usual electric keyboard, and synthesized sound that was Stevie’s breakout from the bubble gum Motown pop. Steveland is going acoustic. Not harmonica but violins, cellos, clarinets, oboe, chamber orchestra.
Wonder fans may react to this the way Dylan fans reacted when Bob went electric. But serious musicians like to try out different things. This isn’t about one kind of music being better than another. I remember when Keith Jarrett (jazz pianist) went through a classical moment. Wynton Marsalis recorded a classical album. Afterall, he went to Julliard as did Miles Davis. And the Davis sound was a departure from the big band music people had come to know and love on and off the dance floor.
At 21 Stevie packed up and left the Motor City and the hands-on Motown management. With some legal help he got his Little Stevie Wonder trust fund and declared his artistic freedom. Wonder got some space, some keyboards, some juice and produced two major albums: “Music On My Mind,” following up with “Talking Book.”
Apparently the new work was performed February 23 before an invitation only audience. Hmmm. Will we have to wait for the CD or MP3? Anyone out there who was in the audience at the LOC? I’m curious.
Maybe Stevie’s commissioned work will debut on “In Performance at the White House” tomorrow night. Actually, the format doesn’t support new and breakthrough music. But with Stevie Wonder in the House, it’s a whole new standard.
The website invites us to share our Stevie Wonder music memories. I have one memory of listening to “Living For the City” from Stevie’s “InnerVisions” while on an overnight bus trip from campus to New York City for spring break…..New York City….skyscrapers.
“In Performance at the White House – Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize,” Friday, February 26 at 8 PM on PBS (check local listings).
Update: Michelle Obama shares her Stevie Wonder memory in her introduction from last night’s performance at the White House. (pool footage courtesy of CBS News)