May 20 announcement in the New York Times of the 2020 recipients of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I am mentioned at the lower right as recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music.
Or I should say without Ceremonial. That’s how the American Academy of Arts and Letters refers to the annual gathering at their headquarters in upper Manhattan, which would have taken place today if not for the pandemic. (What’s the correct name for the neighborhood around 155th and Broadway? Wikipedia tells me 155th is the dividing line between Hamilton Heights to the south and Washington Heights to the north, with Hamilton Heights being a subset of Harlem.) If the novelty has not worn off for you (it has for some colleagues of mine, but not for me) it is an exciting event. I know the details from having attended previously. A reception when you come in is a good moment to oooh and aaah at the famous members of the Academy, (go here for a list of current members) as well as guests – I saw Jackie Kennedy there once. Then there is a luncheon. You are seated with a member of the Academy from your own field; the last time I was there I met the late Arthur Berger for the first and only time. Then you file into the auditorium and take a seat on stage, with prize winners mixed in with members on tiers of seats. (The fine acoustics of the auditorium make it a prized venue for recording sessions; I’ve had two pieces recorded there.) As I recall, Charles Wuorinen was on my left one year, with John Corigliano nearby and Mary Gordon behind me. First, photographs are taken of the whole crowd on stage. Then the audience is admitted, and the speeches and awarding of prizes begins. One time I saw Robertson Davies give an address (there are honorary members from foreign countries). Another reception closes the day.
A member of the Academy once told me that when he was elected his first thought was that “wow, I am in among” (let’s say, at the time) “Saul Bellow and Willem De Kooning”. But then his second thought was that “hmm, I am also in with so and so or such and such” which is to say, with some decidedly lesser lights. Exalting and humbling pretty much at the same time.
I am very grateful to the Academy for the support signaled by this honor. Congratulations to all my colleagues who received recognition!