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3 with UCSD ties, including Pulitzer winner Anthony Davis, to be inducted into Academy of Arts and Letters

Award-winning composer Anthony Davis, a UC San Diego music professor, is a 2021 Academy of Arts and Letters inductee.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and UC San Diego music professor Anthony Davis will be inducted May 19 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of the nation’s most exclusive and prestigious cultural awards for sustained artistic excellence and innovation.

Davis is among 29 new members and four honorary members who will be inducted, including photographer and multimedia artist Lorna Simpson, who earned her master of fine arts degree from UCSD in 1985, and UCSD professor emeritus Faith Ringgold, a painter, writer and performance artist who taught at the La Jolla campus from 1987 to 2002.

“It’s a great honor,” Davis said. “Post-COVID, we will meet every year to help distribute awards that the academy gives to composers, so I’m looking forward to participating.”

The work, which debuted in 2019 at Long Beach Opera, features Donald Trump (or rather an opera singer portraying Trump, circa 1989).

Davis’ induction into the academy comes a year after fellow San Diego composer Chinary Ung became the first faculty member in UCSD’s history to be inducted.

“My friend Chinary Ung just got inducted, and Henry Threadgill and Wynton Marsalis are being inducted this year, so it’s wonderful to be in that company,” said Davis, 70, who lives in University City with his wife, opera singer Cynthia Aaronson Davis.

Anthony Davis was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer for music for “The Central Park Five,” which debuted in June at Long Beach Opera. It was inspired by the racially and politically charged New York trial and conviction of a Latino teenager and four Black teens in the 1989 rape of a young White female investment banker in Central Park. All five were later exonerated and freed. They incurred the wrath of then-New York real estate developer Donald Trump, who is one of the characters in “The Central Park Five.”

The subjects of Davis’ other operas have included the kidnapping and radicalization of heiress Patty Hearst (1992’s “Tania”), a pivotal slave rebellion (1997’s “Amistad”) and social injustices against Native Americans (2007’s “Wakonda’s Dream”).

His upcoming works include an opera about the fatal 2015 shootings by Dylann Roof of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. Davis also is undertaking a musical adaptation of the children’s book “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” which is set at the U.S.-Mexico border and addresses current immigration issues.

Noted composer Anthony Davis blurs the lines between jazz, opera, world music, the avant-garde and other styles with unique skill and daring.

Davis, a UCSD faculty member since 1998, is likely the first composer ever elected to the Academy of Arts and Letters who once turned down an invitation to join the Grateful Dead.

His first major work, “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” debuted at New York City Opera in 1986. A new production of “X” will be launched in May by Michigan Opera, with a new recording to follow.

Davis will be in Oklahoma for the May 1-2 livestream performances of his aria “There Are Many Trails of Tears” from his upcoming new opera, “Fire Across the Tracks, Tulsa 1921.”

Longtime Davis collaborator Mark Dresser, an acclaimed bassist and composer who also teaches at UCSD, was asked to comment on Davis being elected to the academy, which was founded in 1898 and once counted Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt among its members.

“I’ve known Anthony since 1975, and it’s just been amazing to watch his trajectory as a major composer,” Dresser said. “It’s great that all these major awards are being given to him. But he’s been doing consistently groundbreaking work throughout his career and should have been honored sooner.” ◆