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Congratulations, Graduates!

Riccardo Muti talks about the power of music to unite the world at 156th commencement

EVANSTON, Ill.  --- Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director Riccardo Muti charmed the audience from the moment he stepped up to the podium to deliver his address at Northwestern University’s 156th commencement ceremony at Ryan Field.

On a muggy, overcast day, Muti delivered a sometimes passionate and often humorous commencement address -- colored with playful self-deprecation. But the thrust of his remarks was serious and heartfelt, heralding music as a unifying language and how “this mysterious and illusive art can make people better. ”

Reflecting the joy and purpose of the day, the graduates led the opening processional, lined up in purple robes, smiling widely, texting, tweeting and waving to families and friends, who responded in kind.    

Approximately 13,000 people packed the stadium for the 95-minute ceremony honoring approximately 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Expected rain never materialized, and the sun peeked out throughout the morning ceremony.  

Muti, one of the world’s preeminent conductors of our day, and four other distinguished individuals received honorary degrees from Northwestern.

The four are Sara Bloomfield, who led the United States Holocaust Museum for more than a decade; Richard Easterlin, a professor at the University of Southern California who is a pioneer in economic history, economic demography and happiness economics; Northwestern alumna Cloris Leachman, a celebrated television, film and stage performer who has won more Emmys (nine) than any other actor; and Stevie Wonder, an American singer, songwriter, musician and producer who is one of the most celebrated and influential figures in popular music.  

(See tributes to the honorary degree recipients later in the story.)

Every year, in one of the highlights of commencement, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro gives a series of shout-outs to varying groups of the graduates’ loved ones, until just about every family member and friend is standing to wild applause. 

“Not a single graduate would be here today without the support and encouragement of you in the audience,” President Schapiro said.

As Leachman was awarded her honorary doctor of arts, ever the performer, she playfully attempted to take President Schapiro’s presidential medallion from around his neck.

“No, this is the presidential medallion, you have to be the president,” President Schapiro said jokingly. “You came this close,” he said, to replacing him as president, implying if he had been momentarily distracted, “you would’ve been next. Trust me.” 

In his introduction of Muti, Alex Matelski, Class of 2014, said, “Whatever accomplishments an orchestral and operatic conductor may aspire to achieve, Maestro Muti has achieved them -- engagements with the world’s top orchestras and opera companies, prize-winning recordings and, in London, Milan, Philadelphia and Chicago, prestigious positions as music director.”

Muti took to the podium, teasing President Schapiro about the music he chose to play for the conductor’s entrance. “He chose the Requiem, Verdi’s funeral mass,” Muti said, pausing for effect. “I’m not so young but why encourage destiny?,” he asked, capturing the crowd’s imagination right from the start. Muti said he expected the triumphant march of “Aida,” and proved his point by singing a few notes from Verdi’s lively opera.

On a more serious note, Muti stressed the power of music to bring people together in an “extremely problematic world.” The real music is not the notes that the composer puts on the page, he said.

“To understand what is behind these notes is difficult, but the message is universal. Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, are able to speak to people in the United States, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in South America. This is the reason that music is extremely important in bringing different people together.”

He stressed the need for the graduates, musicians and non-musicians alike, to truly communicate and make the world a better place.  

“Far from excusing us from comment and action, our profession gives us a unique voice with which to communicate at the deepest level with those around us,” Muti said. “Each of you, no matter your profession, has the same responsibility.”

More than 20 years ago, Muti came up with the idea of creating a concert for friendship -- an effort to bring “music to troubled cities with very serious and often tragic problems.”

“Those of us who make music know well the importance of using creative expression to influence our society,” he said.

The first Concert for Friendship was in Sarajevo, where the city had been almost completely destroyed. “The musicians from Sarajevo sat together with the Italian musicians, who knew a different religion, a different language and a different culture,” he said. “And yet even though they didn’t know each other’s names, their hearts were beating together, and they played with the same feelings. The stadium was filled with more than 9,000 people who were incredibly moved by this experience.”

He touched a chord when he stressed to the graduates the need for real communication in this digital age. With all the means of communication today, he said, human beings don’t talk to each other. “Our chief instrument of communication is the smartphone. Dialogue is disappearing. And dialogue is the absolute form of growth and maturity.”

The breakdown of language is the breakdown of dialogue, he said. “The world communicates not in English, but in a broken form of English. The world relates in 144 misspelled English characters. And most of the time we don’t even seem to be aware of this.”

Muti concluded his address by saying: “Each of you will have a personal experience that is unique, that will enable you to express your voice in a world where dialogue is the hope of the future.”

Message to parents and family members

Collette Ghunim, Class of 2014, in a message to parents and family members, thanked loved ones “for the multiple times you drove us home or picked us up from the airport, for the nights we came home complaining, not knowing how we would survive the quarter system.”

The “unconditional support and sacrifice” of her loved ones got her through an often difficult four years, she said, and Northwestern gave her incredible tools to enter the world confidently. 

“Because of this University, I left the United States for the first time,” Ghunim said. “I worked with women entrepreneurs in India for an entire summer through the Global Engagement Studies Institute. I organized group volunteer trips to Peru and Guatemala, used an SIGP grant to film for an NGO in Costa Rica and studied abroad for a full year in Egypt. I interned for a quarter at a top TV network in Hollywood -- which I count as a different country in itself. I traveled to and lived in countries I never could’ve gone to without the support and resources of this University.”

In two weeks, Ghunim will jump on a plane, again to Egypt, to make a documentary. “Now, we’ve been granted a visa that never expires, to terrain we’ve never seen,” she said. “There is no syllabus for what we will learn or how to succeed. Yet, from the tools we gathered at Northwestern, today we are equipped to be at the top of our class.”

President Schapiro recognizes high school teachers given a special award

For the fourth year in a row, President Schapiro acknowledged four high school teachers in the audience who received a special Northwestern award that recognizes the ways they influenced the 2014 graduates who nominated them for the honor.

“These four outstanding teachers taught members of this senior class who nominated them for this award,” President Schapiro said. “We recognized them at the honors ceremony yesterday, and we are pleased to have them join us this morning.”

The Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards were given to: Howard Hill (environmental science), Highland Park High School; Catherine Irving (social sciences), Chicago’s Northside College Preparatory High School; David Knight (science), University High School in Irvine, California; and Mattie Olsen (theology), Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, Nebraska.

Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer introduced the five honorary degree recipients

• Sara J. Bloomfield has led the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as director since 1999. As part of her vision to build our nation’s living memorial to the Holocaust into a global institution addressing issues of our time, she has established the museum’s leadership training programs and its National Institute for Holocaust Education, Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

Presenter of Bloomfield’s honorary degree: Peter Hayes, Theodore Z. Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies, professor and chair, department of history and professor of German, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.  

“As director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, you have made it an institution of international renown and influence,” Hayes said. “For your exemplary leadership, you are sought after as an adviser to memorial museums around the world. We are delighted to welcome you back as a distinguished member of the Northwestern community.”

• Richard Easterlin, University Professor and professor of economics at the University of Southern California, previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania for three decades. He is a pioneer in economic history, economic demography and happiness economics. He has written such seminal books as “Birth and Fortune,” “Growth Triumphant” and “Happiness, Growth and the Life Cycle,” winner of the IZA Prize in Labor Economics.

Presenter of Easterlin’s honorary degree: Joel Mokyr, Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“As a pioneer in economic history and demography, you have achieved eminence as a founder of ‘the new economic history’ and of the now-flourishing field of ‘happiness economics,’” Mokyr said. “Your broadly interdisciplinary research has had a profound and enduring influence not only on your own field but also on many others across the social sciences. We are delighted to add to your many honors.”

• Leachman is a celebrated television, film and stage performer and nine-time Emmy-Award winner. After majoring in drama at Northwestern, she studied with Elia Kazan at New York’s Actors Studio and appeared in numerous Broadway and touring productions. An Oscar winner as best supporting actress for “The Last Picture Show,” she has appeared in more than 40 feature films, including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Presenter of Leachman’s honorary degree: Harvey Young, associate professor of theatre, performance studies and radio/television/film, School of Communication, and of African American studies, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.  

“In a career spanning more than six decades, you have appeared onstage on Broadway and in national tours, on television in a host of popular series and in more than 40 feature films,” Young said. “Equally at home in drama and comedy, you have won numerous awards, including an Oscar and more Emmys than any other actor. We are proud to claim you as one of our own.” 

• Riccardo Muti is one of the preeminent symphonic and operatic conductors of our day. Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director since 2010 and honorary director for life of the Rome Opera, Muti has served as music director of Florence’s Maggio Musicale, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Milan’s La Scala. He has conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and at the Salzburg Festival for more than 40 years.

Presenter of Muti’s honorary degree: William Osborn, chair, Northwestern’s Board of Trustees.

“You have conducted for virtually every major orchestra and opera house throughout the world, and through your many recordings you have created a lasting artistic legacy,” Osborn said. “As music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you have raised that already superlative ensemble to even greater heights. For all your magnificent achievements we offer our warmest applause.”

• Stevland Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder -- an American singer, songwriter, musician and producer -- is one of the most celebrated and influential figures in popular music, having amassed 49 Top 40 singles, 32 No. 1 singles, worldwide sales of more than 100 million units, 25 Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. He was the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Centers Honors.

Presenter of Mr. Wonder’s honorary degree: Drew Edward Davies, director of graduate music studies and associate professor of musicology, Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music.  

“Billboard magazine has hailed you as ‘an indisputable genius,’ Davies said. “Presenting you with the Kennedy Center Honors, President Bill Clinton called you ‘the prodigy who became a prophet.’ As a singer, musician, songwriter and social activist, you have generously used your prominence to advance the cause of the disenfranchised. We salute your long list of remarkable achievements.”

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