- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pianist Leon Fleisher; actor, writer and comedian Steve Martin; Motown legend Diana Ross; Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese; and songwriter Brian Wilson are the recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, officials at the performing arts center announced yesterday.

The 30th annual gala Honors performance is set for Dec. 2 and will be broadcast on CBS Dec. 26. President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will receive the Honorees at the White House before the gala. The Kennedy Center Honors will be bestowed the night before the gala at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In keeping with tradition, the Honorees will be saluted during a star-studded celebration — featuring great performers from Hollywood and the arts capitals of the world — on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage.

“With their extraordinary talent, creativity and perseverance, the five 2007 Honorees have transformed the way we, as Americans, see, hear and feel the performing arts,” Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman said yesterday.

A San Francisco native, Mr. Fleisher, 79, began studying piano at age 4, made his public debut at 8 and performed with the New York Philharmonic at 16. Renowned for his interpretations of the piano concertos of Brahms and Beethoven, he made a memorable series of recordings with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra before losing the use of his right hand to focal dystonia.

Mr. Fleisher continued performing a left-handed repertoire until, quite recently, he regained the use of his right hand through the injection of Botox. He also took up conducting, serving at one time as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra.

In 2004, Vanguard Classics released Mr. Fleisher’s first two-handed recording in more than 40 years — “Two Hands” — to critical acclaim. “Two Hands” also is the title of a short documentary on Mr. Fleisher by Nathaniel Kahn. It received an Oscar nomination earlier this year for best short subject.

The Texas-born Mr. Martin, 62, honed his skills as a comedian on the club circuit before landing a writing job on CBS’ “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” for which he shared an Emmy with the show’s other writers in 1969.

During the 1970s, Mr. Martin emerged as a headliner with frequent appearances as a stand-up and sketch comic on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live.” The exposure led to the first of his three comedy albums, “Let’s Get Small” (1977). The album was a huge success, and one of its tracks, “Excuse Me,” helped establish a national catchphrase.

His next album, “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978) was an even bigger success, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The album ended with “King Tut,” a Martin-penned song released as a single during the national craze that accompanied the traveling exhibit of the Egyptian boy king’s tomb artifacts. The single reached No. 17 in 1978. Both albums won Grammys for best comedy recording.

Mr. Martin also starred in such movies as “The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and the film adaptation of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” He went on to great commercial success with a string of family comedies, including 1989’s “Parenthood,” 1991’s “Father of the Bride” and 2003’s “Cheaper by the Dozen.” In 2005, he was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center.

Hailing from Detroit, Miss Ross, 63, first gained fame as lead singer of Motown’s legendary Supremes, one of the most successful girl groups of all time. After leaving the group, she embarked on a successful solo career that included an Academy Award nomination for best actress for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.” She has received a total of 12 Grammy nominations during her career.

In 1976, Billboard magazine named her the female entertainer of the century, and the Guinness World Records book declared Miss Ross the most successful female music artist of the 20th century.

In the case of Mr. Scorsese, when it rains, it pours. A seven-time best-director Oscar nominee, the filmmaker finally took home the prized golden statuette for the first time this year for his mob thriller, “The Departed.”

Highlights of his oeuvre include classics of brutally uncompromising urban realism such as “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver” — all of which starred Robert De Niro, with whom the filmmaker has shared a profound and acclaimed creative collaboration stretching over eight films.

Voted the fourth-greatest director of all time by Entertainment Weekly (the only living person in the top five at the time) Mr. Scorsese also has been a trailblazing champion of film preservation. In 1990, he and other filmmakers founded the Film Foundation, the leading nonprofit organization devoted to film preservation and restoration.

Often called “rock ‘n’ roll’s gentlest revolutionary,” Mr. Wilson, 65, wrote songs for the Beach Boys that have been among the most joyfully influential and exhilarating vibrations in contemporary music.

Until mid-1967, the international success and popularity of the Beach Boys rivaled that of the world’s biggest acts, such as the Beatles, who later cited Mr. Wilson’s work as a major influence.

Mr. Wilson’s creativity reached its apex during the mid-1960s with the “Pet Sounds” album. Various music polls have named “Pet Sounds” one of the greatest pop albums ever recorded, and it reached second place on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. That success was followed by the Beach Boys’ biggest hit, the million-selling No. 1 single “Good Vibrations.”

Soon afterward, it was reported widely that Mr, Wilson suffered from schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, which caused him to hear voices in his head. Amid deepening mental problems, he abandoned work in 1967 on the Beach Boys’ planned “Smile” album, which would go on to achieve almost mythical status in the ensuing decades as an unfinished, unheard masterpiece.

According to the new Peter Ames Carlin biography of Mr. Wilson,” Catch a Wave,” Mr. Wilson’s drug regimen has been reduced to a mild combination of antidepressants, which keep him functioning far more normally than he has in decades, enabling him to record and tour.

In 2004, Mr. Wilson’s inspiring musical and personal resurrection culminated with a critically acclaimed new recording and live performance of “Smile.”

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