The scene could have transpired predictably—an academic procession with the requisite stoles and speeches from worthies—but Friday’s ceremony, inaugurating the first female president of New England Conservatory, unfolded unconventionally. Wisdom, and optimism as well as self-deprecatory humor won the day for Music.
We heard no stodgy (if wonderful) Academic Festival Overture or Pomp and Circumstance. Instead the interleaved great performances of NEC faculty, students, and alumns gave evidence of the success of this most essential institution. Processional trombone fanfares (undergraduate quartet) from the balcony gave way after Board Chairman Kennett Burnes’s welcome, to three most excellent movements from Handel’s Water Music as interpreted by the subtle but brilliant NEC Faculty Brass Quintet, whose members all play in the BSO.
Then, Mark Volpe greeted us with a very funny and self-deprecatory account of how flunking Music History was a prerequisite for his office as BSO CEO. He told us about an exam in which he was asked to identify examples of 20 Phrygi’n modes. He got none.
NEC stepped up production values for this event, giving us theatrical lighting and even teleprompters. But Denyce Graves (NEC 1988) didn’t need an applied spotlight; she radiated her own. Her two songs with faculty pianist Cameron Stowe wowed us with jaw dropping and heart-rending theatricality and engagement. Her account of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Grace bestowed that quality on us like manna.
The Verona Quartet, currently in residence in NEC’s professional string quartet training program, collaborated with undergraduate pianist Evren Ozel in a precise, warm and exciting movement from Dvořák’s op. 81 Piano Quintet.
Then it was Andrea Kalyn’s turn. This decidedly non-narcissistic new leader counseled deference to the faculty, the students, to audiences and to founder Eben Tourjée’s charge to make great music and make music great, “Because I want to be able to look Tourjée squarely in the eye as I walk past that bust and say, ‘Yes, we’re doing something, for the world of music and for the world through music.’ ”
Her Inaugural Address Follows
Chairman Burnes and Members of the Board of Trustees; Chairwoman Yogg and Members of the President’s Council; President Emeritus Lesser; and Distinguished Guests, Faculty, Students, and Friends:
Today is about the path and work of the New England Conservatory, not of any individual. And yet, it is the absolute privilege of my professional life to stand with you today, as part of this incredible community, sharing with all of you in the important work of NEC, and it is deeply humbling to be entrusted with the responsibility of stewarding this exquisite institution, whilst shepherding it into the future. I thank you—my family, my friends, and my colleagues—for your support, for your confidence and trust, and—most of all—for your belief in our students, your devotion to music, and your commitment to NEC.
Please allow me to take another moment to thank our performers. Because today is about celebrating the New England Conservatory, it was particularly important to me that music be central to this day, as it is to every day at NEC. I am truly honoured that Denyce Graves, our esteemed alumna, would sing for us, because–well, because she’s Denyce Graves. Denyce reflects the highest levels of artistry, but she also embodies the character, qualities, and virtues we hope will become evident in all of our students. To our Faculty Brass Quintet, as well as our student trombonists, thank you for bringing the sense of celebration and joy to today in a way that truly brilliant brass playing can do like no other instruments. And to our student performers, the Verona Quartet and Evren Ozel: you have given us a glimpse of the future of music, and it sounds fabulous—thank you. Finally, I would like to thank Mark Volpe, for being here today, and for his gracious and inspirational remarks. The BSO was my very first off-campus visit—I think it was week 2—and I remain so grateful for Mark’s warm and generous welcome to Boston. To have the BSO literally across the street is a such a treat and a gift, and I am so excited about the possibilities ahead—thank you, Mark.
While nominally an “interim” period, the past four years at the New England Conservatory in fact have been marked by leadership. Certainly the Student Learning and Performance Centre across the street stands very much in testament to that. The Board stepped up and stepped in during this period in truly remarkable ways to advance the mission of this institution and to support the work of our faculty, staff, and students, and Chairman Ken Burnes has modelled for us all leadership at the very highest level, demonstrating a deep love of NEC, but also of the people who comprise it. Interim President Tom Novak, along with Kairyn Rainer (Vice President for Administration & Operations) and Katheen Kelly (Vice President for Advancement & Engagement), stewarded this institution through this period with expertise, commitment, and seemingly tireless energy, as well as great generosity of spirit. Our faculty are the very heart of NEC and the core of the education we offer, and their focused work and dedication have ensured that our students have grown in their musicianship and their knowledge, and that our school has become stronger. They in turn have been supported by an equally dedicated staff across the institution, who have ensured that the daily work of NEC has moved forward seamlessly and effectively. And our students: well, again, suffice to say that everything I’ve seen of NEC students suggests that the future is in very good hands. So, from my perspective, there is no question that the New England Conservatory has leadership in its DNA. This is a place filled with truly remarkable individuals, and I am truly grateful for you all.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to place the bust of NEC’s founder, Eben Tourjée, right outside the president’s office, but it’s rather a strategic placement, if not a daunting one for those of us who have to live across the hall. As President Emeritus Larry Lesser noted in his preface to Measure by Measure, the history of NEC, we “walk by it every day,” bringing the past into daily intersection with the present as we contemplate the future. For Tourjée—who has been described as “the Johnny Appleseed of music”—music education was nothing short of a religious calling: “To deny these young folk the opportunity to encourage this talent,” he wrote, “is to renounce our obligation to God.” And the passion—dare I say, zeal—and commitment with which Tourjée approached that calling set a high bar for every subsequent president. One hundred years later, in 1967, President Gunther Schuller channeled that commitment in his inaugural address, declaring, “I foresee that the New England Conservatory will play a significant role in the future of music and music education in the United States. And I pledge myself, with my modest talents and energies, to see that that role will be a visionary one.” And thirty years after that, President Daniel Steiner, at his inauguration, confessed that when he walked out the office door, the bust of Tourjée seemed to accost him with the question, “Young man, what have you done today for the world of music?”
Now, another twenty years further down our institutional path, and at a point where we are very much looking ahead, I think there’s a second question with which Tourjée would challenge us: “What have you done today for the world of music?” certainly; but also, “What have you done today for the world through music?”
The work of music—creating it, performing it, studying it, teaching it—is a fundamentally humanistic endeavor, invoking the most elemental of human drives: expression, play, curiosity, creativity, communication. It is work borne of relationship—of mentoring and collaboration and sharing. And it is work with a point; it is work that can have powerful impact, both within and beyond the profession.
I’ve spent my first 3 ½ months here on something of a whirlwind listening tour, trying to get to know NEC from the inside—through conversation, and concerts, and classes—as well as from the outside, benefiting from the perspectives of the leaders of other educational and cultural institutions in Boston. And what I’ve learned is that NEC is a place that embraces the deeply humanistic element of music, and that through music, seeks to advance the human spirit. I’d like to share what I’ve heard:
NEC is committed to great artistry; we’ve seen the evidence of that already today. It starts with our faculty, who both model and mentor the highest levels of artistry for our students. Every day, our faculty teach our students what is means to be part of something bigger than themselves; how to put process and discipline to creativity; to embrace rigor and aspiration; to be inspired by the challenge of learning; to move through challenge–and sometimes failure—to growth, and achievement, and having something to say; and to help others do the same.
NEC is a place of creativity. There is a long history here of “flexibility, imagination, and experimentation,” to borrow Gunther Schuller’s description. Those qualities are evident everywhere at NEC, for example, in our chamber music, jazz, and Contemporary Improvisation programs. That these have lived alongside one another at NEC for almost a third of our history—something quite unparalleled amongst conservatories—speaks to the ethos of innovation that resonates throughout our history. And this is what we must channel and amplify as we look to the future, because flexibility, imagination, and experimentation are key skills our students need in the 21st century; they are the path to professional freedom. In every department, our faculty start with students’ unique strengths to cultivate their individual artistic and scholarly voices; they are more interested in quality than genre; they embrace—and indeed cultivate—the diverse interests, pathways, and outcomes of our students and alumni.
NEC is a place of connection, collaboration, sharing, and community. As one student told me, “we are the friendly conservatory”; there is a culture of “home” here that starts in the studio, extends throughout the classrooms and rehearsal halls, and lives on through our extensive alumni family. Collaboration and connection resonate throughout NEC, from prep to college: in ensembles, large and small; in musicology, theory, and liberal arts classes that connect learning across disciplines; in hundreds of free performances that bring people together around music, to use Larry Lesser’s term, for “magical moments”; in community partnerships and entrepreneurial ventures; and in broader engagement across arts forms, a particularly dimensional area of opportunity ahead, given that we live in one of the most culturally and educationally rich cities in the world. Boston is a veritable playground for transdisciplinary learning and connections of all sorts. And certainly as we look ahead, igniting all three axes of the artistic triangle—making sure that our students prioritize the audience, as well as the performer and composer—will enliven connection, communication, and understanding.
NEC believes in the transformative power of music in the world. We are educating students to tackle this ever-changing world head- on, to not shy away from change, but to meet it with creative confidence, knowing that they’ve been equipped with the tools they need to forge a multidimensional path of meaning, influence, and impact. Music knows no boundaries. NEC’s impact runs the gamut from transcendent performances in world-class halls through community-focussed programs and partnerships to insightful and engaging professionals in myriad fields.
And so as we shape the future of NEC, there is much upon which we can draw and build. These are the qualities we will cultivate and nourish so that we fulfill our mission of educating our students—from prep to college— in a way that prepares them to lead robust and meaningful professional lives—in, around, and beyond music—and that prepares them to transform the world with a musical life, in as yet unimagined, but oh-so-important and meaningful ways.
I see this moment as a time of great opportunity for the arts, and for music and NEC in particular. Creativity—imagination imbued with process, purpose, and critical judgment—is the fuel of the future, both in practical, economic terms, and in humanistic, cultural, and social terms. Creativity is what we practice as musicians, it’s what our faculty teach and model daily, and it’s what our students will contribute powerfully to the world. So, ours is beautiful, purposeful, relevant work, and ever increasingly so. It matters, therefore—to our students and to society—that we do it at the highest level, and I pledge my own commitment to making sure that we do. Because I want to be able to look Tourjée squarely in the eye as I walk past that bust and say, “yes, we’re doing something, for the world of music and for the world through music.”
Thank you for your belief. Thank you for your belief in NEC, and thank you for your commitment. This is such a happy moment for me, and I am humbled and honoured beyond words to be your 17th president. Thank you for welcoming me to the family.