New England Conservatory Announces 2021 Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipients for its 150th Commencement Ceremony

Mike Lawson • News • April 30, 2021

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Boston’s New England Conservatory announced plans for its 150th commencement ceremony. It’s set for May 23, and a streamed pre-commencement concert will showcase graduating NEC students from the classes of 2020 and 2021 on May 22.

Mavis Staples, gospel and soul singer, is the commencement speaker. Those receiving honorary degrees include Carl J. Atkins, Founding Chair of NEC’s Jazz Studies Department; Emanuel Ax, pianist; Deborah Borda, President and CEO of the New York Philharmonic; Wu Man, pipa virtuoso; Mavis Staples, gospel and soul singer

BOSTON, MA – New England Conservatory announces gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples as its 150th annual commencement speaker at its commencement exercises on Sunday, May 23, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. ET. The ceremonies will take place in historic Jordan Hall and be streamed on NEC’s website ( NEC will also bestow honorary Doctor of Music (hon. D.M.) degrees on five distinguished musicians: Carl J. Atkins, Founding Chair of NEC’s Jazz Studies Department; Emanuel Ax, classical pianist; Deborah Borda, President and CEO of the New York Philharmonic; Wu Man, pipa virtuoso; and Mavis Staples.

Ms. Staples will give her virtual commencement address to the combined graduating classes of 2020 and 2021.

“We’re thrilled to celebrate NEC’s Classes of 2020 and 2021 at our 150th commencement ceremony,” says NEC President Andrea Kalyn. “The past year has tested us all, and I am especially proud of our NEC graduates, who have prevailed in developing and sharing their artistry—whether streaming a concert from their home or from Jordan Hall, performing private virtual concerts for COVID patients, or teaching online lessons to front-line workers. They advance humanity through their music, and I am excited to see the impact they will have on the broader world.”

This year’s recipients are honored for their lifelong commitment to the performing arts and their remarkable contributions to the field. Recent past recipients include: Jessye Norman (2019); Herbie Hancock (2018); André Previn (2017); Leonard Slatkin, (2016); Ahmad Jamal (2015); Carla Bley (2014); Philip Gossett (2013); George Shirley (2012); Steve Reich (2011); and Quincy Jones (2010). Full list of past Honorary Doctor of Music Degree recipients here.

190 graduating students from the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be awarded degrees and diplomas including the Bachelor of Music, Graduate Diploma, Master of Music, Doctor of Musical Arts, and Artist Diploma.

A pre-Commencement streamed concert will showcase NEC students from the graduating classes on May 22, 2021 at 7:30 p.m. ET. Further details will be announced on the NEC website in advance of the performance.

Honoree Biographies

Carl J. Atkins, Founding Chair of NEC’s Jazz Studies Department

In a career that spans more than 50 years, Carl Atkins has been a woodwind specialist, conductor, composer, ethnomusicologist, administrator, consultant, and teacher, in both “Jazz” and Western European music. A native of Birmingham, AL, Atkins received a Bachelor of Music in woodwinds from the Indiana University School of Music, a Master of Music in conducting from New England Conservatory, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in conducting from the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. His major teachers were Eugene Rousseau, Joseph Allard, and Harry Houdeschel in woodwinds; Frank Battisti, Gunther Schuller, Donald Hunsberger, and David Effron in conducting; Robert Cogan, Gunther Schuller, George Russell, David Baker, and Samuel Adler in composition; and master drummer/dancer Kwaku K. Obeng in West African music. Atkins has performed on saxophone, clarinet, and flute, and as a conductor, with many noted musicians and organizations including Gunther Schuller, George Russell, pianist Bill Evans, Jaki Byard, William Thomas McKinley, and Herbie Hancock; the American National Opera Co., the Boston Opera Co., Boston Musica Nova, the Columbus (Ohio) Pro Musica, the Swedish Radio Jazz Orchestra, and Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

As a composer, Atkins has written music for solo artists, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestras, and documentary films. His research into West African and African American music and culture was the basis for the script of the award-winning documentary, “Didn’t We Ramble On: Tracing Processionals and Marching With Music in the African Diaspora.” He has recently completed the musical score for a documentary on the August Wilson Center, Pittsburgh, PA.

Atkins was the Founding Chair of the Afro-American Studies and Jazz Department at New England Conservatory, where he also taught woodwinds, African American Music History, and conducted jazz and wind ensembles. He has served as President & Executive Director of the David Hochstein School of Music and Dance (Rochester, NY), President of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Co-Director (with noted Jazz bassist Ron Carter) of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at NEC, Associate Dean for Advanced Studies at NEC, and taught courses in Music History. From 2002 to 2018, Atkins was Professor of Music at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, where he served as Chair of the Department of Performing and Visual Arts from 2012 to 2018. He retired as Professor Emeritus in 2018.

Emanuel Ax, pianist

Born in modern day Lvov, Poland, Emanuel Ax moved to Winnipeg, Canada, with his family when he was a young boy. Mr. Ax made his New York debut in the Young Concert Artists Series, and in 1974 won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. In 1975 he won the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists, followed four years later by the Avery Fisher Prize.

Highlights of the 2019/20 season included a European summer festivals tour with the Vienna Philharmonic and long-time collaborative partner Bernard Haitink, an Asian tour with the London Symphony and Sir Simon Rattle and three concerts with regular partners Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall in March 2020.

Additional recitals and orchestral appearances last spring were postponed due to Covid-19 and like many artists around the world, Mr. Ax responded to these unprecedented circumstances creatively. He hosted “The Legacy of Great Pianists,” part of the online Live with Carnegie Hall highlighting legendary pianists who have performed at Carnegie Hall. Last September, he joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a series of surprise pop-up concerts for essential workers in multiple venues throughout the Berkshires community.

Mr. Ax has been a Sony Classical exclusive recording artist since 1987, his most recent being Brahms Trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos. He has received GRAMMY Awards for the second and third volumes of his cycle of Haydn’s piano sonatas. He has also made a series of Grammy-winning recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano. In the 2004/05 season Mr. Ax contributed to an International EMMY Award-Winning BBC documentary commemorating the Holocaust that aired on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2013, Mr. Ax’s recording Variations received the Echo Klassik Award for Solo Recording of the Year (19th Century Music/Piano).

Mr. Ax is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary doctorates of music from Skidmore College, Yale University, and Columbia University.

Deborah Borda, President and CEO of the New York Philharmonic

Deborah Borda has redefined what an orchestra can be in the 21st century through her creative leadership, commitment to innovation, and progressive vision. She became Linda and Mitch Hart President and CEO of the New York Philharmonic in 2017, returning to the Orchestra’s leadership after serving in that role in the 1990s. Upon her return, the Orchestra established a new vision that included the introduction of two contemporary music series and Project 19, the largest-ever women composers’ commissioning initiative, to celebrate the centennial of American women’s suffrage. Ms. Borda has held top posts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She currently also serves as Chair of the Avery Fisher Artist Program.

The first arts executive to join Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership as a Hauser Leader-in-Residence, she now serves on Oxford University’s Humanities Cultural Programme Advisory Council. Recipient of honorary doctorates from the Curtis Institute of Music and Manhattan School of music, her recent accolades include election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (2018), being named a Woman of Influence by the New York Business Journal (2019), and receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Women in Classical Music Symposium (2020).

Wu Man, pipa virtuoso

Recognized as the world’s premier pipa virtuoso, Wu Man is a soloist, educator, and composer who gives her lute-like instrument—which has a history of more than 2,000 years in China—a new role in both traditional and contemporary music. She has premiered hundreds of new works for the pipa, while spearheading multimedia projects to both preserve and create global awareness of China’s ancient musical traditions. Projects she has initiated have resulted in the pipa finding a place in new solo and quartet works, concertos, opera, chamber, electronic, and jazz music as well as in theater productions, film, dance, and collaborations with visual artists. She has performed in recital and with major orchestras around the world, is a frequent collaborator with ensembles such as the Kronos and Shanghai Quartets and The Knights, and is a founding member of the Silkroad Ensemble. She has appeared in more than 40 recordings throughout her career, including the Silkroad Ensemble’s Grammy Award-winning recording Sing Me Home, featuring her composition “Green (Vincent’s Tune).” She is also a featured artist in the 2015 documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

Born in Hangzhou, China, Wu Man studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master’s degree in pipa. At age 13, she was hailed as a prodigy and became a nationally recognized role model for young pipa players. She subsequently received first prize in the First National Music Performance Competition, among other awards, and participated in premieres of works by Chinese composers. She moved to the U.S. in 1990 and was awarded the Bunting Fellowship at Harvard University in 1998. She was the first Chinese traditional musician to receive the United States Artist Fellowship (2008) and the first artist from China to perform at the White House. In 2013, she was named Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year. She is a Visiting Professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and a Distinguished Professor at the Zhejiang and the Xi’an Conservatories.

Mavis Staples, gospel and soul singer

“I’m the messenger,” Mavis Staples says. “That’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day.”

Hailed by NPR as “one of America’s defining voices of freedom and peace,” Staples is the kind of once-in-a-generation artist whose impact on music and culture would be difficult to overstate. She’s both a Blues and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; a civil rights icon; a GRAMMY Award-winner; a chart-topping soul/gospel/R&B pioneer; a National Arts Awards Lifetime Achievement recipient; and a Kennedy Center honoree. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., performed at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and sang in Barack Obama’s White House. She’s collaborated with everyone from Prince and Bob Dylan to Arcade Fire and Hozier, blown away countless festivalgoers from Newport Folk and Glastonbury to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, performed with The Band at The Last Waltz, and graced the airwaves on Fallon, Colbert, Ellen, Austin City Limits, Jools Holland, the GRAMMYs, and more. At a time when most artists begin to wind down, Staples ramped things up, releasing a trio of critically acclaimed albums in her 70’s with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy that prompted Pitchfork to rave that “her voice has only gained texture and power over the years” and People to proclaim that she “provides the comfort of a higher power.” Staples’ most recent album We Get By, written and produced by Ben Harper, is a clarion call to love, to faith, to justice, to brotherhood, to joy and is a timeless appeal to the better angels of our nature.


About New England Conservatory

New England Conservatory (NEC) is recognized internationally as a leader among music schools, educating and training musicians of all ages from around the world for over 150 years. With 800 music students representing more than 40 countries in the College, and 2,000 youth and adults who study in the Preparatory and Continuing Education divisions, NEC cultivates a diverse, dynamic community for students, providing them with performance opportunities and high-caliber training with internationally-esteemed artist-teachers and scholars. NEC’s alumni, faculty and students touch nearly every aspect of musical life in the region; NEC is a major engine of the vital activity that makes Boston a musical and cultural capital.

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