New World Symphony cofounder and artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas will receive one of the nation's highest artistic honors in December. The conductor, composer, and musical director has been named one of five 2019 Kennedy Center honorees alongside pop-culture titans such as actress Sally Field; singer Linda Ronstadt; R&B funk band Earth, Wind & Fire; and the beloved children's' TV show Sesame Street. The 2019 class will share the honor with former recipients, including Bob Dylan, Oprah Winfrey, and Stevie Wonder.
As the artistic director of Miami's New World Symphony, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and conductor laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra, Thomas is among the most recognizable figures in classical music. He's also a fixture at Miami Beach's New World Center, where he conducts symphony fellows during performance season. The 11-time Grammy Award winner cofounded the New World Symphony in 1988, and since then, the institution has become one of the top orchestral academy programs in the nation, preparing more than 1,000 musicians for careers in the classical music field.
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"I am honored that the Kennedy Center, which is a living center of both arts and ideals, has chosen to recognize my work," Thomas said in a statement. "I hope that I can be thought of as a representative for all American classical musicians at this remarkable event.”
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The Kennedy Center Honors, which traditionally have been benign nonpartisan celebrations of American luminaries, have garnered controversy in recent years. President Donald Trump decided to skip the 2017 ceremony at the Washington, D.C. performing arts center after honorees Norman Lear, Carmen de Lavallade, and Gloria Estefan voiced criticism of the administration and its policies. Estefan, the Kennedy Center's first Cuban-American honoree, took the opportunity to blast the president's anti-immigrant policies in an interview with the New York Times.
"We have seen a lot of anti-immigrant backlash this year," she said at the time. "So for us, it may hold even more beauty than for someone who has lived here all their lives. To get this kind of award is so American."
It's still unclear whether the president will attend the 2019 festivities, but he was a no-show in 2018 too, so it's a safe bet he'll stay away. It's probably for the best — he probably would've gotten an earful from Sally Field.