A conservatory for growing acts


June 30, 2000

Janet Ritterman analyses one of the world's top music schools.

Published histories of music conservatoires are no longer unusual. Many European schools of music were founded in the 19th century, and major anniversaries during the 20th century have frequently served as the stimulus for a publication through which key events in institution's growth and development are documented for posterity. Most organise their material around the terms of office of those who have led the institution. While Andrea Olmstead's study of the Juilliard School in New York also adopts this general approach, it distinguishes itself by the thoroughness of the research that underpins it, the scholarly approach it adopts and the perceptiveness with which issues are presented and debated. Although Olmstead is a former member of faculty, this does not diminish her ability to approach her subject with objectivity. Instead, there is much to suggest that her treatment of the subject matter has benefited from this first-hand knowledge.

The name Juilliard has strong resonances for those involved in music, dance and drama education and training at professional levels. For at least 40 years, the Juilliard School has been widely regarded as one of the best performing arts schools in the world. Among its alumni are many international figures: in the field of music Leontyne Price, Van Cliburn, Philip Glass, Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis, James Levine, Itzhak Perlman, Richard Rodgers, Yo-Yo Ma and Midori represent only a small sample.

Despite many ups and downs, which Olmstead comprehensively documents, the school's reputation has become the stuff of legend. Her book recounts in absorbing detail the story behind the legend, from the founding of the Institute of Musical Arts in New York in 1905 to the emergence of the institution in its modern form - first as the Juilliard School of Music and latterly, with the establishment of a dance department in 1951 and in 1968 of a drama division, simply as the Juilliard School.

Though the story is one of people - students and staff, presidents and board members, patrons and politicians - it is also a history of the buildings in which the institution has been housed, and the ways in which the physical environment has influenced those who study and work there. Since 1969 the school has been located in splendid purpose-built accommodation at the Lincoln Center, the outcome of many years of planning and difficult negotiation, during which the whole complex was created.

Olmstead has a natural gift for storytelling, and the twists and turns in this 12-year saga are recreated with compelling vividness. While welcoming the achievements, she does not attempt to conceal the financial pressures and psychological stress engendered by the move or to mask the fact that the benefits originally envisaged from collaboration between the individual constituents of the centre have not been realised. Having presented the evidence, Olmstead is frank and fearless in her judgements of individuals. For William Schuman, president of the school from 1945 until he sought the role of president of the Lincoln Center in January 1962, she reserves much of her most astringent criticism; she has little sympathy with his bull-in-a-china-shop style.

Olmstead does, however, pay tribute to his part in establishing the Juilliard String Quartet as a permanent feature of the school, and in the revision of the theory and history programmes to form the integrated four-year L&M (literature and materials of music) programme, an approach which, since its introduction in 1947, has influenced the teaching of academic studies in music within higher education on both sides of the Atlantic. The achievements of the Juilliard Repertory Library, one of the projects initiated during the term of office of his successor as president of the school, Peter Mennin, are also appraised, as are the curriculum changes that Mennin instigated at masters and doctoral levels.

Olmstead's ability to characterise and capture the dynamics of the conservatoire culture makes for absorbing reading. Accounts of the teaching of individual members of faculty and the relationships they established with their students are vividly told. Legendary figures among Juilliard piano faculty, such as Olga Samaroff, Carl Friedberg, Alexander Siloti, Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, are brought to life through the recollections of those who studied with them. Tribute is paid to Vincent Persichetti, under whose leadership Juilliard emerged as a centre for composition, and to other key figures who have influenced the development of the school, such as Martha Hill and John Houseman.

One of the book's particular strengths is that changing educational and artistic approaches are presented in terms of thinking within the wider world. This is much in evidence in the final chapter, which focuses on the changes in emphasis under the leadership of current president Joseph Polisi. Examples of the tensions between "traditional" and "progressive" views of the role of an international conservatoire are illustrated through examples of the institution's approach to recruitment (by 1995, 47.5 per cent of music students came from overseas), and its handling of the complex issues of racism, nativism, sexism, social inclusion and student funding.

Although the institution established by Frank Damrosch in the early years of the 20th century did not bear the name Juilliard, it is likely that in 2005 the school will choose to mark its centenary. When the time comes, there will be little need for a centenary publication of the customary kind. Olmstead has provided this and more - a book that offers much to admire and much to ponder.

Janet Ritterman is director, Royal College of Music.

Juillard: A History

Author - Andrea Olmstead
ISBN - 0 252 02487 7
Publisher - University of Illinois Press
Price - £35.50
Pages - 368

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