- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When the Library of Congress picked Stevie Wonder as the second recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, they included a special request — a musical commission.

Mr. Wonder accepted, but as he pointed out in his remarks to the press in advance of the concert, and to the audience assembled in the Coolidge Auditorium of the library’s Jefferson Building, he didn’t exactly sit down at the keyboard and start composing once he heard the news.

“Sketches of a Life,” a sprawling, magnificent hybrid pop-classical concerto, was written between 1976 and 1994 — finished, Mr. Wonder recalled, “when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa.”

Mr. Wonder spoke movingly of his own emotions upon returning to the piece. In it, he said, he hears echoes of his late mother. “I can hear her voice, I can hear her joy, I can hear my cry of missing her,” he said.

“Sketches” received its world premiere Monday at the Library of Congress, with Mr. Wonder front and center on piano, Yamaha keyboard and harmonica. Orchestrated with the assistance of his longtime collaborator and Motown arranger Paul Riser, who also conducted, “Sketches of a Life” traces Mr. Wonder’s own musical development and stitches together a crazy quilt of influences encompassing Mozart, Dvorak, the greats of Tin Pan Alley, Ray Charles and most significantly from a pop music point of view, his own work.

A 21-piece chamber orchestra was assembled to accompany Mr. Wonder, including a second piano, harp, percussion, French horn, bassoon, oboe, clarinet, six violins and two each of cello, viola and bass. The piece opens with a simple melodic theme that is picked up in a swell of violins. Mr. Wonder’s affinity for harmonies reveals itself early on, with the interplay of the two pianos and the flute and oboe. The oboe parts felt especially suffused with Mr. Wonder’s signature tone - weirdly mellow, upbeat and forceful all at once.

The next movement or sketch is more jazzy, upbeat, even flowery. Interestingly, the strings pair off in an unusual combinations, with the violas and cellos playing together as a middle voice. The deep tone evokes Mr. Wonder’s own singing voice, which does much of its best work in the middle registers.

The piece begins to move with the beat of a Stevie Wonder track when he switches to keyboard. The synth sound is that distinctive mix of harpsichord and Fender Rhodes that harks back to the great album “Music of My Mind.” The rhythms here shift as the keyboard and oboe engage in a point-counterpoint.

“Sketches” peaks with a solo on Mr. Wonder’s trademark chromatic harmonica - his unmistakable playing is backed by piano as the rest of the orchestra quiets. The playing overtly draws on gospel tones and motifs, arching, keening and soaring. The piece ends somewhat suddenly, with a reprise of the opening notes and a crescendo.

Two encores followed, “Overjoyed” and a version of “My Cherie Amour” with audience participation. The orchestra added its voice; it seemed that quite a few of these hard-bitten classical musical types were verging on tears at the sheer joy of singing along with Mr. Wonder.

Taken in the context of Mr. Wonder’s career, “Sketches” is an amazing find. He began its composition at the end of a stretch of creative ferment nearly unmatched in the annals of pop music. During the period that followed, Mr. Wonder´s work took a decidedly commercial turn, with the radio-friendly “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and his famous duet with Paul McCartney, “Ebony and Ivory.” Yet during this period when he became a global star, he also returned, now and again, to the very personal “Sketches of a Life.”

Most entertainers of his stature wouldn’t keep a 20-minute classical-pop odyssey under wraps - they would sequester the London Symphony Orchestra in a Laurel Canyon studio for a month or so, recording an album for a holiday release. Mr. Wonder, remarkably, kept his piece in a drawer until the Library of Congress came calling.

Mr. Wonder will accept the Gershwin Award from President Barack Obama in a special ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. The event includes a concert featuring performances of Mr. Wonder’s songs by singing stars, including Tony Bennett, Paul Simon, Mary Mary, and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. The concert will be shown at 8 p.m. Thursday on WETA-TV, Channel 26, and will be aired nationally Friday by PBS affiliates.

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