The Next Phase: Steve Reich talks to Richard Kessler About Redefinition and Renewal
Steve Reich: I understand that you also ended up teaching at Manhattan. How did that come about and how did you feel about it?
Richard Kessler: It was a residency partially funded through Chamber Music America. We taught brass chamber music. We worked with all the different student brass ensembles…we rehearsed with them, we rehearsed for them, and we coached them. I miss it. I really loved it. I loved being around students and it was also a little home base for us. Chamber Music America gave us that opportunity; we had to raise part of the funding, but we got paid. Manhattan School paid us a salary. It was another piece in our career, with the touring, with the recordings, with the residency—it’s what makes the life of a chamber musician. I was part of the residency from 1988 to 1993.
Steve Reich: Why did you leave the life of a performing musician? I understand you were involved with an organization called Artsvision, but I don’t really know what that is…
Richard Kessler: The Saturday Brass hired a consultant to help us with our education programs—Mitchell Korn. We needed to develop our work in education, to expand our skills and help build that part of our career. It’s vital to making it as a professional chamber ensemble. So for instance, when we got booked into the Kennedy Center they would send us for a week into the Fairfax city schools conducting educational residencies…this was in addition to our concert at the Terrace Theater. We wanted to do more of it and make more money—there was actually pretty good money. So we hired this consultant Mitchell Korn who had been very successful as an artist with the old Affiliate Artist Program. Mitchell worked with us on all sorts of things: to think about the grade level issues; to think about participatory issues; how do you manage a classroom; how do you deal with teachers; how do you make your ideas work in a curricular context. Mitchell worked with us on all this stuff. We hit it off, Mitchell and me, and he started asking me to do work for him, to start writing study guides to help other artists prepare for work for schools. Little by little I did more and more work for him. It became like a pendulum: the quintet on one side; the education work on the other. I started to feel that I was good at the education work. I felt that I had the knack for it. It felt natural to me.
There was a certain point in time when I began to realize that while I may have been a good trombone player, I thought that a lot of players could have taken my place any day of the week. Playing for me was never easy. I didn’t have a natural talent and had to work and work and work at it. You see people with natural talent. They don’t even practice and they can play beautifully. I had something there inside of me when I worked with kids, families, and teachers. I started to feel that I could do more for the music I loved by working in education than I could as a player.
There was a point in time where actually it all snapped for me, a kind of “a-ha” moment. We, the SBQ, made our Kennedy Center debut at the Terrace Theater and among the pieces we played was the premiere of a new quintet by Richard Danielpour, the second one he had written for us. It was an interesting piece because the slow movement was dedicated to Stephen Albert. Richard was friends with Stephen, who had only recently died in a car accident. We were also playing a piece of Arvo Pärt‘s, Pari Intervallo, an organ piece that Pärt arranged for us. This slow movement became a memorial piece for Stephen Albert that sounded a bit like Pärt’s Pari Intervallo. Richard is that kind of composer, great ears and with the ability to meld all sorts of styles and ideas into his own voice. I thought that movement was extraordinarily beautiful. Anyway, when we were backstage during intermission, after we had already played Danielpour’s “Urban Dances Book Two,” the tuba player in the quintet said, basically: “I don’t want to play any more contemporary music—it’s all sad. I don’t want to play any more sad music. People don’t want to hear any more sad music, I want to play happy music…” I remember thinking to myself, “This is not something an adult should be doing,” meaning that I should find another career. I was about 32 years old and [laughs] I realized at that point that I was going to have to leave the quintet, stop playing, and focus on education fulltime.
I resented what the tuba player said, particularly in light of the hard work some of us in the quintet did to convince composers to write for us and to obtain funding. I think that sometimes composers might forget how hard the performers have to work to find the funding for a commission. Add to that the fact that many composers didn’t want to write a brass quintet. What we had to do as a brass quintet to convince composers to write for us! They’re looking for a string quartet, or an orchestra premiere, or they all want that elusive opera. You know how it is…
Steve Reich: Well, I’m different. But I do know how it is! [laughs]
Richard Kessler: [laughs] Well, many are looking for these things; a great deal of the field focuses, sometimes obsesses, about orchestras. Anyway, sometimes it might take a year or more of nudging to get a composer to say yes. We were chasing around John Harbison, Gunther Schuller, many others, Ligeti, Lutoslawski… Then you have to find the money. How many times do you apply to Koussevitzky and get turned down? You apply to another foundation, and get turned down. So you finally scrape the money together and you get a piece that you believe in. Then you get this from the tuba player—I had had enough.
And, in the middle of playing at the Kennedy Center! You know how long that took?
Steve Reich: At intermission he said this?
Richard Kessler: Yes.
Steve Reich: Ouch!
Richard Kessler: I just thought, “This is not for adults.” So I figured it was about time to take up Mitchell Korn’s offer. He owned Artsvision, a consulting company developing programs all over North America—for orchestras, opera companies, theater companies, for foundations, for entire cities; partnerships between an ensemble and a school—all this kind of work in all these places. In October of 1993 I played my last concert with the quintet.
Steve Reich: So you can thank that tuba player! [laughs]
Richard Kessler: Pretty much! [laughs] I can thank him for ending up at the American Music Center, which was the most prophetic of it all.
Steve Reich: What do you consider to be some of the highlights when you were at Artsvision?
Richard Kessler: We did some wonderful things, worked for so many different organizations: The New York City Board of Education, the Annenberg Foundation, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, The Acting Company, the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, in cities all over North America. We developed programs, created curricula, helped teachers to integrate the arts into their daily teaching or helped arts teachers work more closely with classroom teacher. Certainly the creation of the Center for Arts Education has to rank right at the very top.
Steve Reich: You started that at Artsvision?
Richard Kessler: Yes. We were hired by the then New York City Board of Education, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with initial funding from the Aaron Diamond Foundation. This was in 1994. Basically, the Annenberg Foundation established a national school reform initiative where it gave a total of $500 million to independent programs that sought to address specific challenges to public education. In this case it was an arts education initiative. There were 18 of these initiatives that were funded by the Annenberg Foundation and one of them was the Center for Arts Education in New York City (CAE), CAE was created to restore arts education in the New York City schools. Arts education had, for the most part, been removed from the New York City public schools in about 1978. There was a big budget crisis and they simply made the decision that they needed to cut money out of the system and just removed art and music. They simply fired the music and art teachers. All of these incredible programs, like that chorus I was in, disappeared just like that. Gone. For many years a lot of the cultural organizations worked to keep arts in the schools. But the teachers weren’t there, and the programs were decimated.
CAE was created to restore it and that was a tall order—it’s something that will take many years of work to help foster that kind of system-wide change. Since 1996, CAE has put almost $30 million into these innovative arts education partnerships between schools and cultural organizations. The partnerships are about advancing arts learning in the school, in a way that can effect the culture of the school so that arts education will be supported for years to come. In addition to the partnerships, there is also a program where parents learn alongside their children—something that is vital, as parental involvement is the most important factor in a child’s education. There is also a wonderful career development program that places high school students as interns throughout the city in arts-related industries. And there is much more, including conferences and publications.