Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Founded in 1867, Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) is the United States’ oldest independent school of music. Despite the Conservatory’s link with the past, the school has a tradition of innovation. For example, in 1969 it was the first anywhere to give a degree for Jazz, and today it still has a large, well-respected Jazz Department. In 1974, composer Gunther Schuller, who was NEC’s president at the time, and pianist Ran Blake created the Contemporary Improvisation program to merge jazz, classical, and ethnic influences. Among examples of the school’s progressive thinking is its current mission to teach, support, and promote new music, not only in the Composition Department, but also throughout the school.

NEC’s large composition faculty includes: Arthur Berger, Robert Ceely, Robert Cogan, Alan Fletcher, Michael Gandolfi, John Heiss, Lee Hyla, Joseph Gabriel Esther Maneri, Caleb Morgan, and Malcolm C. Peyton.

Students in the department typically remain with one primary composition instructor throughout their time at the conservatory, although they are free to change as they please. Students have a weekly lesson, and many of the instructors also have regular seminars for their students. Undergraduate composers are required to sing in chorus. However, exceptions are made at times – a current composition student is also contrabass virtuoso, so he performs with the University Orchestra instead. (Graduate students do not have a performance requirement.) Most composition students take piano or conducting lessons, which is particularly important because for the orchestration class the students must conduct their assignment themselves.

The Graduate Composers Seminar is something of a misnomer because many undergraduates take this course also. It is taught in a rotation by the faculty, so it is different every semester. Outsiders do not usually attend this weekly seminar, however, locals are invited to informal colloquiums that take place on a fairly regular basis. Normally these colloquiums involve composers – most recently Philip Glass, Dutilleux, György Ligeti and Thea Musgrave – but soprano and new music advocate Lucy Shelton will soon speak about extended vocal techniques.

A composers’ concert series features faculty and student music. Students also get opportunities to hear their works played in a “Tuesday Night” student composers series that takes place seven times each year. Student composers arrange this series themselves, and it is said to be fairly easy to get the student performers to agree to play. NEC’s orchestra, chorus, and wind ensemble also all have major commitments to do new music. And, although it is not a part of the school, the Boston Modern Orchestra picks a new student work to perform each year.

Demonstrating its desire to be well ahead of the game, New England Conservatory had its centennial celebration, “American Century Festival,” two years ago. The American Century Festival included both the classics of the 20th Century, and important new composers such as Steven Mackey, John Harbison, David Lang, Donald Martino, and NEC’s faculty composers. Another recent festival included composers local to Boston: John Harbison, Bernard Rands, Yehudi Wyner, Peter Child, and Leon Kirchner. Panel discussions with these composers took place and each composer had two major works performed during the weeklong series.

One of the things the members of the conservatory are proudest of is the coordination between the composition and chamber music programs. Student instrumentalists compete to be selected for four top “honors” ensembles. Each of these ensembles is required to play, not just any piece of contemporary music, but a new work specifically written by one of the student composers. The composition department also has a competition to choose the student works that will be played. The recipient of last year’s winning brass quintet found this to be such a positive experience that they received an NEA grant. They are now in residency in Texas as advocates for new music. Among the things this quintet will perform in Texas are four new pieces written by NEC’s student composers.

NEC’s faculty members include several who are new music specialists, including pianists Russell Sherman and Randall Hodgkinson, and the above mentioned Lucy Shelton. Wind ensemble conductor, Frank Battisti, has commissioned more than 50 pieces, including works by Harbison, Michael Colgrass, Robin Holloway, the late Vincent Persichetti, Carlos Chavez, and Michael Tippett. Pianist Stephen Drury works closely with John Zorn, from whom Drury has commissioned new works. Drury has also commissioned works from Lee Hyla, John Cage, Terry Riley, and Chinary Ung. He leads the Avant-garde Ensemble, comprised entirely of students, in the Enchanted Circle contemporary music concert series. The Avant-garde Ensemble experiments with progressive musical ideas, and also was recently involved in a collaborative project with a professional dance company in Boston. NEC’s other new music ensemble, the Contemporary Ensemble, headed by John Heiss, focuses more on academically oriented new music and does the standard repertoire of the 20th Century. Guest composers have recently included Schuller, Boulez, Maxwell-Davies, and Ligeti. The NEC Percussion Ensemble has premiered works by Irwin Bazelon, Christopher Rouse, and John Harbison. So, it seems that between these groups, NEC has found a way to house “uptown” and “downtown” music happily under one roof.

All students are encouraged to speak to audiences before performances, and in that way become advocates for concert music. Composers are required to speak. NEC even has an elective course that teaches students to speak to, and interact with audiences. Every undergraduate must take a career skills class, teaching them about vital issues, such as setting up an ensemble, and equally important – the way to properly fill out a tax report form. As a final project for this class, students must give a presentation outside of the conservatory, somewhere in the community.

NEC alumni of note, include composers such as Richard Danielpour, Michael Daugherty, and David Rakowski. Pianist Christopher O’Reilly, is involved with a program called “From the Top,” which attempts to introduce classical and new music to children, including performances of composers such as Aaron Jay Kernis. Important new music ensembles that feature NEC graduates include: Collage, Boston Musica Viva, Dinosaur Annex, Auros, Phantom Ensemble, and Extension Works. Nancy Zeltsman, a member of “Marimolin,” is married to composer Steven Mackey and she frequently returns to the school with him.

The NEC Orchestra has undertaken CD projects, including a 1998 New World CD of music by Donald Martino. The school’s wind ensemble recently released a CD on Albany Records of the music of Rands, Harbison, Kraft and Husa .

While NEC does have an electronic music studio, the set-up is quite basic, and it is not a main priority of the school. However, technology abounds elsewhere. There are plans to expand the NEC Web site to make available recordings of their concerts, some of which are already broadcast on Boston’s WGBH in a series devoted to current concerts in Boston.

NEC makes an active effort to foster new audiences among the local community. The school’s 600 concerts per year are promoted in city papers, and with radio ads, and that is in addition to the school’s mailing list of about 8000. Needless to say, concerts are well attended. On most nights throughout the school session there are at least three concerts taking place among the NEC’s four halls, which includes Jordan Hall. Jordan Hall has a capacity of about 1100 and is acoustically one of the best in Boston. Most concerts are free.

NEC is also involved in a number of community projects with Boston public schools, the Boston Latin Academy and suburban public schools. NEC has preparatory musical education for children, and continuing educating for interested adults, which includes classes that aid in the appreciation of a current concert series. NEC even runs its own “charter” elementary school. Run by six part-time NEC faculty, two full-time recent alumni and many work study students currently enrolled in NEC, currently this experimental school includes kindergarten through second grade, but it may expand to fifth grade soon. The children take music classes every day. They create their own instruments, sing, take Suzuki lessons, and are even members in a pseudo-gamelan ensemble. This program, like NEC itself, is truly a shining example for musical education in the United States.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox