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2016 Commencement Speakers

Two distinguished guests will receive honorary degrees and address the graduating class: Emanuel Ax, internationally acclaimed Grammy-winning classical pianist (and headliner at the formal opening of Skidmore’s Arthur Zankel Music Center), and Bernice Johnson Reagon, renowned activist, musician, and cultural scholar (and grandmother of Tashawn Reagon ’16). The faculty speaker will be Kate Graney, associate professor of government and director of gender studies.

Emanuel Ax
Emanuel Ax (photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Emanuel Ax was born in Poland and grew up in Canada and then New York City, where, he told Limelight Magazine, he was lucky to study with piano teachers who were expert at “making kids feel that something is fun and serious at the same time.” He recalled that from the age of 12, “I haunted Carnegie Hall and listened to . . . pretty much all the great pianists of the time.” The gifted young musician pursued training at the Juilliard School under Mieczyslaw Munz. In 1970 he received a B.A. in French at Columbia University.

In 1973 Ax won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, in 1974 the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, in 1975 the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists, and in 1979 the coveted Avery Fisher Prize.

His distinguished career has taken him all over the globe, playing with the world’s leading orchestras and at top venues, presenting music by such diverse figures as Sir Michael Tippett, Hans Werner Henze, and Paul Hindemith; premiering new works by the likes of John Adams, Bright Sheng, and Melinda Wagner; and interpreting traditional composers from Mozart to Chopin. For decades, Ax’s main duo recital partner has been cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom he met when both were students at Juilliard. He has also recorded trios with Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman, partnered with Jaime Laredo, Isaac Stern, and Richard Stoltzman, and recorded two-piano music with Yefim Bronfman. His recordings with such partners garnered chamber-music Grammy Awards in 1986, 1987, 1992, 1993, and 1996, and his Haydn piano-sonata series earned him an instrumental-soloist Grammy in 1995 and again in 2004.

Music critics have cited Ax for his “sheer humanity” and “way of seeming to enfold every listener in a metaphorical embrace” and have praised the “emotional range” that allows him to sound “beseeching, wistful, furious, nostalgic, and finally triumphant.”

In 2004­–05 Ax contributed to a BBC documentary on the Holocaust that earned an International Emmy Award. In 2007 he earned an Award of Excellence as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A close friend of the late financier, arts and education philanthropist, and Skidmore trustee Arthur Zankel, Ax came to Skidmore as its McCormack Visiting Artist-Scholar in Residence in 2010. He headlined the formal dedication of the Arthur Zankel Music Center with a preconcert talk, solo recital, and performance with the Skidmore College Orchestra.

Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon  (photo by Sharon Farmer)

Bernice Johnson Reagon, scholar, singer and song leader, and activist for over half a century, has been a profound contributor to African American and American culture.

Born in southwestern Georgia, she developed a singing style and traditional repertoire grounded in her experiences in church, school, and political activism. As a composer, she has created a narrative of her social and political activism through songs and larger works. 

In 1961, as a student leader in the Albany, Ga., civil-rights movement, she was expelled from Albany State College. In 1962 she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and performed as a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers organized by Cordell Reagon.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and then received a Ford Foundation fellowship to study at Howard University, where she earned a Ph.D. in history in 1975. While attending Spelman, during the Black Power Movement, she founded the Harambee Singers. In 1973 she founded the internationally acclaimed vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, which she led for 30 years.

Paralleling her work in music, Reagon is a leading authority on African American cultural history. In 1974 she was appointed a cultural historian in music at the Smithsonian Institution. She was later a curator for the National Museum of American History. She was also a consultant, producer, composer, and performer on several award-winning film projects, notably PBS’s Eyes on the Prize (1987) and The Civil War (1990), as well as the NPR production Wade in the Water (1994).

She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Heinz Award in the arts and humanities, and a Charles E. Frankel Prize, presented at the White House by President Bill Clinton, for contributions to the public understanding of humanities. 

In 2004, upon retiring from Sweet Honey in the Rock, Reagon used the word “songtalker” to describe “what I do and who I am when I rise as singer/orator/poet: I rise with communication in mind, a dialogue, weaving talk and song into an offering to those who gather in the sound of my voice.”

Her strongest musical collaborator is her daughter Toshi Reagon. They have collaborated on three operas—The Temptation of St. Anthony, Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter, and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower—on music scores for PBS’s Africans in America and HBO’s Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, and on numerous studio recordings.

Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon were Skidmore’s McCormack Visiting Artist-Scholars in Residence in 2015.

Kate Graney
Kate Graney  (photo by Megan Mumford)

Kate Graney, associate professor of government and director of the gender studies program, was chosen by the graduating class as the faculty speaker for their commencement ceremony.

A scholar of multiculturalism, religion, gender and federalism in Russia and the former Soviet states, Graney has shared her work in professional academic meetings and as book chapters and articles in Dilemmas of Diversity After the Cold War, Journal of Strategic Studies, and many other publications. She is the author of two books, Of Khans and Kremlins: Tatarstan and the Future of Ethnofederalism in Russia (2009) and Re-Orienting Europe: Europeanization in Russia and the Former Soviet Union (forthcoming).

Her scholarship has been supported by grants from the International Research Exchange Board and the Social Science Research Council; in 1994–95 she was a MacArthur Foundation Scholar for the Study of Peace and Security in a Changing World.

A Skidmore faculty member since 1999, Graney has taught courses ranging from Eastern European politics and the United Nations to gender in international relations and human rights. She has also given presentations for students on the honor code and alcohol use, and spoken on “Feminist Research Strategies and Stories,” “Global Implications of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks,” and other topics. In the Saratoga Springs region she has offered public talks on Russia after Putin and multicultural issues in Russia.