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Top Five Classical Commencement Speakers

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Now is the time of caps and gowns, Pomp and Circumstance and more than a few speeches offering worldly advice to this year’s crop of college graduates. While leading politicians from President Obama to his opponent Mitt Romney are lining up to proffer career and life tips, more than a few people attending commencements can hear wise words from elite musicians and composers, including the five we’ve listed here.

1. Lang Lang

On May 11, Chinese pianist Lang Lang addressed the Manhattan School of Music’s graduating class, telling the young musicians, "In the end, your goal is to communicate with your audience. Touch their hearts with your fingers.” He was joined in the ceremony by New York Philharmonic booster (and sometime WQXR host), Alec Baldwin. Both received honorary doctorates.

2. Alex Ross

Critics rarely count the subjects of their critiques among their admirers, so it seems with great honor the Curtis Institute invited author and New Yorker scribe Alex Ross to impart advice to future performers, and confer him with an honorary doctorate. The message seemed to be absorbed by the small graduating class with one notable exception: violinist Nikki Choi, couldn’t make the ceremony because he was competing in the Queen Elizabeth Competition.

3. Laurie Anderson

Avant-garde musician and artist Laurie Anderson addressed graduates of the School of Visual Arts at its ceremony at Radio City Music Hall on May 10 (the day before the opening of an exhibition of her visual work that SVA helped coordinate). The entire ceremony was Webcast live (archived here). Anderson herself graduated from Barnard College from which she also received an honorary degree.

4. Morten Lauridsen

Rider University in New Jersey tapped the composer Morten Lauridsen to speak at the May 12 ceremony for its Westminster Choir College. Lauridsen is a University of Southern California professor and the best composer you’ve never heard of according to the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout  The 2007 National Medal of Arts is a fitting choice; he’s best known for his choral music such as Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium.

5. A.R. Rahman

A.R. Rahman, who won a pair of Academy Awards for his score to Slumdog Millionaire, provided the culmination of Miami University of Ohio’s Year of the Arts with his address on May 5. The Indian composer and musician had a relationship with the institution through Raman’s connection with Srini, an alumnus and the founder of the school’s Global Rhythms ensemble. Rahman also walked away with his fourth honorary doctorate.

Weigh in: Who would - or wouldn't - you want to hear speak at a commencement?