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Interview with Dean of the Juilliard School, Ara Guzelimian

Dean Ara Guzelimian
Dean Ara GuzelimianAra Guzelimian

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Born in Cairo, Ara Guzelimian is the current dean and provost of The Juilliard School. An alumnus of UCLA, he was senior director and artistic advisor at Carnegie Hall and the Ojai Festival, and has contributed pieces to The New York Times, Musical America, and Opera News. This week at the Music@Menlo festival in Atherton, California, Guzelimian discusses the impact and effects of World War II on musical life (8/7) and the extraordinary character of the late pianist and Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer (8/8). Below is a transcript of our recent conversation with Dean Ara Guzelimian.

EH: In the 21st century, with students coming from various backgrounds and some audiences complaining about the uniformity of sound heard on the concert stage, how does one teach character – that individuality of sound - at a time when art seems to be taking a back-seat to everything else ? Are today’s students less concerned with beauty than generations past ?

Guzelimian: I don’t think that they’re less concerned with beauty. I think the presence and history of recordings has sometimes had an inhibiting factor on students, who want to match the completely polished sheen of recorded performances. But I think each generation struggles with this. I would prefer to put the focus on the art of communication rather than on individuality as an end in itself - the ability to communicate in a direct arc from performer to listener, the content of the work.

I often find the struggle to be between technically proficient performers and compelling, communicative performers, and I think this plays out in each generation. Each generation has different sets of information, attention and influences, but it’s still at the heart of an artist to find his or her own voice, that ability to reach a listener in a meaningful way. How that’s taught is a complicated and subtle thing. You need an extraordinary foundation of analytical skills, technical skills, depth of understanding, physical mastery of the instrument or the technique. Above and beyond that, you have to add a layer of restless curiosity and seeking, in trying to understand how a piece of music works, what it and the composer are trying to say. I don’t think there’s one perfectly defined method to teach that.

I was very touched a few years ago when I was having a conversation with James Levine, who is vastly and immensely experienced with a huge amount of operatic repertoire. He said that when he returns to an opera like Marriage of Figaro or Falstaff - which he’s conducted, in some cases, hundreds of times before - he begins with an unmarked score. He doesn’t begin with every solution that worked in the past; he really grapples with it anew. I think that’s a very powerful metaphor for this constant questioning, this ‘being a student of music’, which is a way of keeping interpretation as living a thing as possible.

EH: Paul Jacobs, chair of the organ department at Juilliard, told us earlier this year, “I fear that many teachers are not geared enough toward helping their students capture the essence of music - the essence of a piece is not merely checking all the right boxes and playing music in an appropriately stylish or sensitive manner. Rather, it is deeply spiritual, something that speaks directly to the heart in a pure and real way,”. For Alice Herz-Sommer, music was spiritual food at a time of unimaginable suffering. How does one explain the spiritual element in music ? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this dimension, which seems almost mystical.

Guzelimian: We’re talking about an art that has a range of demands from practical and functional to extremely mystical and spiritual, in various proportions, depending on the work and the composer. I think the ultimate sense of discovery is deeply personal, and what a great teacher can do is consistently provoke a student to look further.

I worked a great deal in my Carnegie Hall days with Isaac Stern, who was nearing eighty at the time. He had the eagerness of 20-year-old music student, but with sixty years of experience. There was always this restlessness of how to go at it, how to make it better. When he taught in master-class situations, he would say, ‘Stop, what’s going on here ?’, ‘Why do you play it this way ?’ ‘Why is it important to play it this way ?’, and he would relentlessly question. He applied the same standard to himself, and I think it’s that acute awareness and questioning that actually gets at core meaning much more meaningfully and effectively than any formula for technical advancement, or just literal musical analysis of a piece. A great teacher and a great artist never rests easy. They wake up grappling with the piece, and are open to a sense of discovery. A teacher should constantly push a student away from thinking that they’ve solved it.

EH: On the subject of Isaac Stern, recent accounts have been published about his use of power in the music industry, at times, to minimize the careers of some fellow musicians. You worked closely with the great musician for a number of years. If you’re comfortable answering, what were your own impressions of the man ?

Guzelimian: All I can say is that in my experience of him, Mr. Stern was the single most tireless advocate of music, in general, and young artists, specifically, that I’ve ever experienced. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for a young musician who asked his help or advice. I think you don’t have to look very far for an astonishing number of accomplished artists who he mentored and advocated for in his life.

I’ll tell you one little story that was not meant to have ever been witnessed. In a back hallway at Carnegie Hall, I chanced upon him in intense conversation with a young violinist at one of the chamber music workshops that he ran at Carnegie Hall. He was extremely frustrated that this young man was being held back in his potential by what he felt was a very poor instrument. Mr. Stern had brought one of his own violins to lend to the young man for the next six months, so that the young man could see what was possible with a much more responsive, higher-quality instrument. The only reason I ever became aware of this incident was because I stumbled into it. It was completely out of sight. The young man was a good but not astoundingly great violinist, and he looked flabbergasted that Isaac Stern was handing him one of his own violins to live with for the next six months. Anybody in any profession who wields authority and power - and Mr. Stern certainly held both - can always be second-guessed. The measure of any of our lives is the good that we do. By any standard, the extraordinary good that Isaac Stern did is boundless.

EH: Thank you for sharing that. In addition to your work in education, arts administration, and as lecturer, you are also a music writer. I’m curious to know, with the decline of newspapers and the rise of blogs, is music henceforth to be judged as simply a matter of opinion, where all positions are equally valid ?

Guzelimian: I tend to think of the arts as an essential part of life, like a force of nature. I like to use the following analogy: if you have a gradient, a mountainside or a hillside, and you have melting snow or a spring at the top, that water is going to make its way down the hillside no matter what obstacles you throw at it. If something seals off the main channel, the river simply reorganizes itself. It may go underground, it may break into three or four tributaries, but it’s going to continue following the force of nature and make its way down the mountain. I think the arts, in general, and music, specifically, play that sort of role in our lives. I think we’re in a huge state of flux right now - in a lot of the socio-economic systems of the arts - but I don’t worry about the arts themselves, because there’s a fundamental human need for them.

Now, to answer your more direct question: Yes, I’m acutely aware that not only are many newspapers cutting back on cultural coverage and music criticism, but the newspapers themselves are jeopardized. On the other hand, the unbelievable wealth of material available about the arts online – whether on YouTube, on blogs, or on the extraordinary websites and apps being developed – has expanded the range of what’s available at a geometric rate each day. So I think one set of resources about music and critical thinking about music, is in the process of being replaced by others.

There are outstanding blogs, music organizations with remarkable sources of information and teaching materials online, and some incredible apps that use technology to explore music in ways I wouldn’t have thought or imagined possible ten or fifteen years ago. There’s the composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who’s seen everywhere in a very imaginative Apple ad campaign that touches upon the art of composition in a very meaningful way. There’s the app producer in England, Touch Press, that has put up these incredibly rich-layered, subtle and complex apps that explore the orchestra, the Liszt Sonata in B minor with Stephen Hough, at a level of sophistication where there’s no parallel. And so I constantly find encouragement in the way the river of music is reorganizing itself.

I now jokingly refer to YouTube as the repository of all human knowledge, because I am floored daily at the extraordinary materials and archiving of musical activity that exists within it. Juilliard has a remarkable musical manuscript collection, and until the recent past, access to these were limited to a handful of scholars gaining access to the archives. All of Juilliard’s manuscripts are now available at juilliardmanuscriptcollection.org, and Juilliard itself is part of The Library of Congress Music Treasures Consortium, which combines the music manuscripts resources of the Beethoven-Haus, the British Library, Harvard University Library, Morgan Library, NY Public Library, Yale University, and others. We’re talking about unbelievably high-resolution images of these musical manuscripts, where you can zoom-in almost to level of the fibers in the paper. Anybody sitting anywhere can suddenly take a very close look at a Beethoven manuscript. So I find the diversity of knowledge being made widely available to be a thrilling development.

EH: Born the same year as Vladimir Horowitz, Alice Herz-Sommer was an incredible figure. What are some of her outstanding qualities that young people – young artists and musicians especially – can strive to learn from ?

Guzelimian: I am completely fascinated by the difference in human reaction to adversity. Why is it that some people go through the most hellish of experiences and emerge with a level of grace from those experiences, while others are completely destroyed by those experiences ? Alice is a shining example of the first category. At the time of her death this year, at 110, she was the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She had gone through hell and survived. After the war, she moved to Israel, where she raised her son, a cellist, who also died relatively young. And to the end, she kept this kind of shining optimism.

For her, the vehicle of that optimism was her love of music, and the beauty that music represented. I think music is one of the richest measures of being alive, and her ability to savor that literally kept her alive. When you see this remarkable Academy Award-winning short documentary, The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life, there’s just a kind of light coming from her eyes when she speaks.

Her devotion to music is a really great challenge for young artists, to put their own individual stories to the most elevated and full of grace use. Alice Herz-Sommer is a shining beacon. In many ways, she could teach the youth about youth.
To some degree, this harks back to what we were talking about earlier. I remember seeing a documentary on Robert Mann’s last rehearsal as a member of the Juilliard Quartet, after more than fifty years of playing. Imagine the momentousness of that Tanglewood event. But they don't spend a moment at that last rehearsal indulging in nostalgia or going back over old stories. He's intently focused on the music at hand - he’s just like a young man trying to get Beethoven right. There was a 77-year-old musician, who has been playing this music for his entire life, going at it with the zeal of a 20-year-old, trying to get the music right. In a strange way, that’s that endlessly youthful outlook that he and Alice Herz-Sommer share. I can't recommend the Alice Herz-Sommer film highly enough. It is readily available on Netflix, and it can be purchased directly on the producer’s website. It’s one of life’s great lessons, regardless of whether the viewer is interested in music or not.

EH: Last week on NPR, Juilliard faculty member, Greg Sandow, and Alex Ross spoke of the future of classical music, the role that new music must play in relation with the present times. Before Juilliard, you were an executive at Carnegie Hall. In your opinion, what must be done for classical music to make inroads with the general public ? What is Juilliard’s role in this future ?

Guzelimian: Very critically, one of the central beliefs and values of Juilliard since the presidency of Joseph Polisi is to shape not just the successful artist, but "the artist as citizen". That means not just all of the requirements of artistry, but a strong emphasis is also placed on advocacy and engagement of an artist within the community, a commitment to bring the arts to people who don’t readily have access to it, a commitment to speaking and writing about the arts and communicating the value of the arts, and a commitment to living a life as an artist fully engaged with the society around you.

I think for the arts to survive, the sensibility has rightly changed to much more outward-directed engagement with the arts. I certainly recognize the decline and crisis in arts education in the United States, but remarkably enough, in the last six years since the impact of the economic issues of 2008, when so many people’s lives have been full of economic uncertainty, the number of applications to Juilliard have actively and steadily increased, which means aspiration remains a constant. These applications don’t just come from the big cities or schools with tremendous resources, they come from all over the country, sometimes from unlikely corners of the country and small places where there is a program intact, or an inspiring teacher. So I take heart from that.

In terms of my friends and colleagues Greg Sandow and Alex Ross, I agree with them that we have to guard against classical music becoming a purely historical art. Part of the renewal, the continuation of classical music remaining a part of the general cultural conversation in society depends on the creation and response to new work. If music becomes a historical art, then something precious is being sealed away in a museum case. I often find the juxtaposition of new and more standard, familiar works, to be really invigorating. In that context, you begin to hear Beethoven as new - which it once was. You can hear its power and shock-value, which makes it an essential, irreplaceable experience, not just a walk down memory lane.

EH: Given the rising costs of tuition and the difficulties with respect to employment, are conservatories admitting too many students ?

Guzelimian: I can’t speak for conservatories in general, but I certainly don’t think we are. The number of students we admit is very carefully monitored and calibrated. That said, the cost of education is probably the single biggest issue that keeps us sleepless at night. There is an economic uncertainty in going into a career in the performing arts, and our biggest challenge is to make sure that we continue to grow scholarship support, to try to minimize the debt level on a graduating student so they can make the best artistic choices, rather than have all of their life choices be driven by economic pressures.

EH: Is there a relatively little-known living composer who you believe can be the voice of our time -- perhaps somebody the public and students should take more note of and listen to ?

Guzelimian: It's impossible for me to pick just one! So let me focus on a whole generation of wonderful younger composers who fearlessly and naturally cross boundaries and give us a fresh glimpse of what's next. I have been hugely encouraged by the work of composers like Christopher Cerrone, Sean Shepherd, Caroline Shaw, Timo Andres and Andrew Norman, all of whom are barely in their 30s and all of them very much worth discovering. And there's more where they came from . . .

EH: Ideally, in times like these, what is the role of the artist, especially in America?

Guzelimian: I think it’s as a speaker of enduring truths and one who asks the bigger human questions. I’d like to leave it at that.

EH: Mr. Guzelimian, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time.

Guzelimian: Thank you, Elijah. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

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