New England Conservatory Announces 153rd Commencement with Honorary Degree Recipients Paul Simon, Robert Spano, & Dawn Upshaw (May 19)

Simon to serve as Commencement speaker

2024 Honorary Degree Recipients
Paul Simon (photo: Rick Diamond/Getty); Dawn Upshaw (photo: Brooke Irish); Robert Spano (photo: Jason Thrasher)

New England Conservatory is delighted to announce that three musical luminaries will receive honorary degrees during its 153rd Commencement exercises on May 19 in Jordan Hall. Songwriter, recording artist, and philanthropist Paul Simon, who will also be the featured speaker; five-time Grammy-winning soprano, educator, and MacArthur Fellow Dawn Upshaw; and conductor Robert Spano, a four-time Grammy winner who is Music Director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Laureate of the Atlanta Symphony after 20 seasons at the helm, and who has served as Music Director of the Aspen Music Festival and School since 2011, will all receive honorary Doctor of Music degrees. More information about Commencement is available here.

NEC President Andrea Kalyn comments: “We are honored to welcome Paul Simon, Robert Spano, and Dawn Upshaw to Jordan Hall for NEC’s 153rd Commencement. Each of these remarkable individuals has left an indelible mark on the world of music, their remarkable contributions spanning genres and generations. They are exemplars of excellence, creativity, and impact, and so are beacons of inspiration – for our graduating class, for artists broadly, and indeed, for humanity." 

Simon adds: "It’s my distinct pleasure to receive this honorary degree from the esteemed New England Conservatory of Music, an institution which empowers and educates musicians for life, and instills in its students a pursuit of excellence.” 

Founded in 1867, NEC represented a new model of conservatory that combined the best of European tradition with American innovation. Simon, Upshaw and Spano join a long list of honorees across a wide spectrum of musical genres, all of whom have also made outstanding contributions in the areas of arts education, cultural and charitable causes, and much more. In recent years NEC has bestowed honorary Doctor of Music degrees on such musical luminaries as Emanuel Ax, Herbie Hancock, Wu Man, Edgar Meyer, Jessye Norman, Mavis Staples, James Taylor, and many more.

Members of the media interested in covering NEC's 153rd Commencement exercises in-person or virtually must email by Friday, May 10, 2024.

About Paul Simon 

During his distinguished career spanning seven decades, musician Paul Simon has produced an unparalleled body of work including timeless masterpieces, such as Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sounds of Silence, and Graceland. Venerated as one of the greatest songwriters of all time and “popular music's premier poet of the human condition,” Simon has received 16 Grammy Awards and has been twice inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and was presented the Library of Congress’ inaugural Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which recognizes the profound and positive effect of popular music on the world’s culture.

Simon was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011, and in 2012 named laureate of the prestigious Polar Music Prize along with Yo-Yo Ma. In 2019, Paul Simon was the first musician to be presented the Great Americans Medal by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His song “Mrs. Robinson,” from the film The Graduate, was named in the top ten of the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Songs.
In 2023, Simon released his ambitious and widely acclaimed 33-minute, seven-movement masterwork, Seven Psalms, which earned him his 36th Grammy nomination and topped critics’ Album of the Year lists – lauded as “a masterpiece” by MOJO’s David Fricke, and “profound” by The Times of London. Simon’s journey through the making of Seven Psalms is featured in director Alex Gibney’s career-spanning documentary, In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon.
Simon’s philanthropic work includes the co-founding of the Children’s Health Fund, which brings health care to low-income children and their families around the United States. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, which is committed to stopping the species extinction crisis through conservation. Over his career, Simon has raised millions of dollars for worthy causes, and in 2018 made a one million dollar gift to the NYC Department of Education’s Fund for Public Schools, to invest in music and art programs.

About Robert Spano

Robert Spano, conductor, pianist, composer, and teacher, is known worldwide for the intensity of his artistry and distinctive communicative abilities, creating a sense of inclusion and warmth among musicians and audiences that is unique among American orchestras. After twenty seasons as Music Director, he continues his association with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as Music Director Laureate. An avid mentor to rising artists, he is responsible for nurturing the careers of numerous celebrated composers, conductors, and performers. As Music Director of the Aspen Music Festival and School – a post he has held since 2011 – he oversees the programming of more than 300 events and educational programs for 630 students and young performers. Principal Guest Conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra since 2019, Spano began his tenure as Music Director of the orchestra in August 2022 and will continue there through the 2027-2028 season. He is only the tenth Music Director in the orchestra’s history since its founding in 1912. In January 2024, Spano was appointed Principal Conductor of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School. In February 2024, Spano was appointed Music Director of the Washington National Opera (WNO), beginning in the 2025–2026 season, for a three-year term; he is currently the WNO’s Music Director Designate. 

Spano made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2019, leading the U.S. premiere of Marnie by American composer Nico Muhly. Recent concert highlights have included several world premiere performances, including Voy a Dormir by Bryce Dessner at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor; and George Tsontakis’s Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

With a discography of critically-acclaimed recordings for Telarc, Deutsche Grammophon, and ASO Media, Spano has garnered four Grammy Awards and eight nominations with the Atlanta Symphony. Spano is on the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory and has received honorary doctorates from Bowling Green State University, the Curtis Institute of Music, Emory University, and Oberlin. Maestro Spano is a recipient of the Georgia Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities and is one of two classical musicians inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

About Dawn Upshaw

Joining a rare natural warmth with a fierce commitment to the transforming communicative power of music,  Dawn Upshaw has achieved worldwide celebrity as a singer of opera and concert repertoire ranging from the sacred works of Bach to the freshest sounds of today. Her ability to reach to the heart of music and text has earned her both the devotion of an exceptionally diverse audience, and the awards and distinctions accorded to only the most distinguished of artists. In 2007, she was named a Fellow of the MacArthur Foundation, the first vocal artist to be awarded the five-year “genius” prize, and in 2008 she was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Her acclaimed performances on the opera stage comprise some of the great Mozart roles as well as modern works by Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Messiaen. From Salzburg, Paris and Glyndebourne to the Metropolitan Opera, Dawn Upshaw has also championed numerous new works created for her including The Great Gatsby by John Harbison; the Grawemeyer Award-winning opera, L’Amour de Loin and oratorio La Passion de Simone by Kaija Saariaho; John Adams’s Nativity oratorio El Niño; and Osvaldo Golijov’s chamber opera Ainadamar and song cycle Ayre.

In her work as a recitalist, and particularly in her work with composers, Dawn Upshaw has become a generative force in concert music, having premiered more than 25 works. She furthers this work in master classes and workshops with young singers at major music festivals, conservatories, and liberal arts colleges. She is the Head of the Vocal Arts Program at the Tanglewood Music Center and was the founding Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

A six-time Grammy Award winner, Dawn Upshaw is featured on more than 50 recordings. She began her career as a 1984 winner of the Young Concert Artists Auditions and the 1985 Walter W. Naumburg Competition, and was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Young Artists Development Program.