Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Making Conservatories Less Conservative

What American Conservatories Do To Spark Interest in New American Music.

Written By

Stefan Weisman

The name Juilliard is, for many, synonymous with “music conservatory.” Now, Juilliard has another mission in addition to creating technically accomplished performers and composers. One of their stated goals is to create among their students “leaders in their communities and in the world of the performing arts.” And Juilliard itself hopes to be a leader. Juilliard is asking many vital questions of itself and of the state of music today: “What is the role of the performing artist in our society and in our world? As a model for performing arts institutions internationally, how can Juilliard shape its programs so that they may have an impact beyond our city and our nation?”

Clearly, art events involving various media draw from a larger pool of creativity, and attract audience members that might not necessarily be drawn to a concert of just music. So, Juilliard advocates activities that foster collaboration between its three divisions – music, dance and theater. The school’s Dean, Stephen Clapp, described some collaborative projects to me. For example, there is a class taught each year combining student composers and choreographers. As a result of this class, a performance is given every January. Another project called “InterArts” involves student composers, instrumentalists, and vocalists, in addition to students from the dance and drama departments. Although their concert two weeks ago was not publicized, it was well attended. Another project that is entirely student motivated is an extensive collaboration among students, now in its tenth year, from all divisions at the school to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.‘s life and legacy. Additionally, the Dean told me that the Student Life Office makes an effort to ensure that students of varying disciplines live side by side in the residence halls. Although, it may seem to be minor, it is interesting that the school does consider the potential results of this association.

Student composers typically have one primary teacher throughout their tenure at the school, with whom they work within a mentoring situation. The composition faculty includes of composers (all at the top of their field): Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt, Robert Beaser, John Corigliano, and Christopher Rouse. Stephen Paulus will also be on campus next year to give workshops. Composer forums take place each Monday night. Frequently when there is a significant premiere in town that composer will give a master-class. Recent visitors include John Harbison, and Gunther Schuller.

Faculty music is, of course, well respected and is performed regularly by Juilliard’s orchestra and by smaller ensembles. There are also many opportunities for student music to be heard, which include orchestral readings, and chamber music concerts. In addition, student chamber music groups sometimes choose to work with a particular student composer, who will create a new piece for their ensemble.

Another vital component of the school is the New Juilliard Ensemble, which exclusively performs new works from approximately the past five to ten years. Large numbers of student instrumentalists take part in these concerts. The leader of this group, Joel Sachs, also has an anonymous audition of scores, which is open to the student composers. From this, Sachs requests one or two new works per year. Despite a lack of funds, Sachs is also occasionally able to convince a composer from outside the school to write a new work for the ensemble by guaranteeing a top-notch performance by a group noted for its important contribution to the new music scene in New York City.

Sachs is also the creator and head of Juilliard’s annual Focus! Festival, which has been around since 1985. The festival has a different theme each year, ranging from music of the 1920s, to a series devoted to Webern, to the most recent festival, “Toward the Millennium.” Last year’s series featured very recent music by composers such as David Lang, Mario Davidovsky, Joan Tower, Roger Reynolds, John Luther Adams, Paul Schoenfield, and many more. No student composers are included in this series, but it is still important that Juilliard’s performers are exposed to vital and active composers from outside the school. The upcoming festival will continue this theme. Sachs pointed out that most of the compositions in this series would be New York, United States, or World Premiers. He also commented that he tries to provide good, clear program notes, which will aid the audience’s understanding of the music to be heard.

Sachs spoke of his desire to break the “ghetto” of 20th Century music, and get new music into the general diet of the school. However, it was not clear to me how he, himself, was accomplishing this, since both of his projects – the New Juilliard Ensemble and the Focus! Festival – are essentially separate from the rest of Juilliard. The Dean also said that he hoped that new music would become integrated into the curriculum. Some of this is already happening. Experimenting with electronic music is a component of the required class “Music Literature and Materials,” so all students are exposed to it. Secondary composition classes are an option for instrumentalists. Student violinists must include a piece beyond 1939 in their recitals, and other departments have similar requirements. There was also a recent series called the “Piano Century Forum,” which included panel discussions involving Milton Babbitt, Amanda Harberg, and other composers known for their piano music. Some of these composers coached students, and there were many programs each including numerous performers. There are numerous faculty members who are known for their advocacy of new music. For example the cello department includes both André Emelianoff, of the Da Capo Chamber Payers, and Fred Sherry, who has worked closely with many composers including Berio, Copland, Foss and Takemitsu. Of recent alumni, the Flux Quartet is one group that has been strongly associated with contemporary music.

About two-hundred Juilliard students participate in several outreach programs. Approximately one morning per week, Juilliard students go to a public elementary, junior, or senior high school in New York City to give talks and demonstrations. Student musicians also teach private lessons. These outreach programs are particularly designed to reach underprivileged children. Concerts are also given in nursing homes, hospitals, and hospices.

There is no doubt that Juilliard has an incredible reputation, and it is because of this that it attracts large audiences to its events – most of which are free. It is good to see that the School recognizes its responsibility to foster the arts and care for the community in which it exists.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox