Hitting the High Notes
Music Performance Program helps create community of musicians
By Hope Glassberg '04
When he arrived at Columbia in 2000, Columbia University Orchestra
Director Jeffrey Milarsky never imagined that the then–45-member
group would take on Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem,
a piece that not only demanded a more substantial orchestra but
also a full chorus. Last year, CUO, in conjunction with the Manhattan
School of Music chorus and Collegium Musicum, a Columbia
Renaissance and Baroque vocal music group, not only performed Ein
Deustches Requiem, but released a CD — its first —
of the concert.
“We had 75 people in the orchestra and 120 people singing
… it was a huge setup in Lerner. We had the CD professionally
made, and I think it tremendously enhanced the overall image of
the orchestra,” says Stephan Lessans ’04, a bassoonist
and CUO’s executive director.
CUO is one facet of Columbia’s Music Performance Program,
and its growth is representative of the way that the MPP has blossomed
during the past five years, due to increased funding supported by
Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis and a reorganization spearheaded
by MPP’s faculty director, Deborah Bradley. The MPP boasts
under its umbrella musical opportunities that cater to a range of
interests and capabilities. A joint program allows students to earn
an undergraduate music degree from Juilliard and pursue academics
at Columbia. Music lessons are available for students at different
ability levels looking to improve their playing skills. There are
a number of chamber music groups for students who prefer to play
in a more intimate setting. For those with a jazz interest, Assistant
Professor of Music Chris Washburne and Don Sickler offer jazz ensembles.
The list goes on, and what’s more, many students in the MPP
participate in several groups.
“During my freshman year, I became a part of a community
of musicians,” says Sarah Kishinevsky ’05, a violin
player in CUO (and winner of the 2002 concerto competition) who
also has participated in the chamber music ensembles.
This musical community at Columbia has been several years in the
making. When Bradley, a pianist with a doctorate in ethnomusicology
who previously taught at NYU, came to Columbia five years ago, she
was surprised to discover that despite its strong academic music
program, Columbia’s music performance opportunities were limited.
“Five years ago, there was virtually nothing,” says
Bradley. “There was an orchestra that was OK, but there were
few musical activities on campus, to say nothing of opportunities
to play in some of New York’s premier concert halls.”
Today, students can play in Steinway Hall every spring (this year’s
concert is April 6), and in Merkin Hall or Weill Hall at Carnegie
Hall in the fall. There also are end-of-semester chamber concerts
on campus at the Italian Academy and in Philosophy Hall.
Dean Austin Quigley
(center) joins student musicians and faculty at the 2003 Steinway
Gala, Steinway Hall.
Bradley was brought in on the heels of an academic review that
had revealed the dearth of music performance opportunities. According
to Roxie Smith, associate v.p. of Arts and Sciences, the faculty
wanted to develop the MPP by hiring new people such as Bradley,
and devoting more Arts and Sciences dollars to the program. “The
faculty felt that the Music Performance Program was an important
part of co-curricular life at Columbia,” Smith said.
With assistance from Smith, Yatrakis and Associate Dean of Administration
Susan Mescher, Bradley set out to direct University funding to the
program. Bradley, who chose to attend NYU as an undergraduate (rather
than a music conservatory) due to interests in literature and Slavic
studies, felt it was important to create performance opportunities
within a liberal arts school.
“[The conservatory] isn’t the kind of environment
that everyone would choose,” Bradley says. “[Students
here] emerge from the University being smart musicians, having a
deeper understanding of the workings of the music. They benefit
not only from having top instrumental instruction, but also by being
in classes with some of the country’s top musicologists, theorists
and composers. In short, they learn how to approach the music from
several angles and to see it as an art form that makes contact with
many aspects of the human spirit.”
Washburne feels the program offers something unique to its students.
“We offer a holistic approach to jazz education and music
education. You have this incredible institution that offers classes
in all different disciplines,” says Washburne, who earned
an M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D., all in music, from GSAS. “When
musicians are educated this way instead of just with practical training,
they are more interesting to listen to.”
One of Bradley’s first objectives in expanding the MPP was
to recruit a top-notch orchestra director. Under Milarsky, a Juilliard-educated
percussionist, the CUO has added instruments, grown in size and
become more competitive. “It’s grown because of word
of mouth and people hearing us play. Freshmen coming in know how
good we are. It’s a healthy, competitive nature,” Milarsky
Milarsky continually is impressed with the students’ level
of dedication and craftsmanship. “Regardless of how busy students
are, they always seem to be prepared. It’s remarkable. They
can’t practice 10 hours a day, like I did at Juilliard,”
CUO and the chamber music ensembles are not the only musical performance
opportunities that have sprouted in the past few years. Washburne
has been at Columbia for 15 years, since he was a graduate student
specializing in ethnomusicology. He recalls few music performance
venues back then. When he returned to Columbia as a professor three
years ago, he raised the issue with Elaine Sisman, head of the music
department. “I approached Elaine and said, ‘I think
there’s really something missing,’” he says. “Columbia
is a magnet (for musicians) because they want to be in New York
City. I wanted to tap into that talent.”
Washburne began his ensemble in 2000 with seven players and limited
musical instruments paid for by the University. But a fateful performance
at Smoke, a jazz club at 105th and Broadway, turned things around.
That night, Phoebe Jacobs, head of the Louis Armstrong Educational
Foundation and Armstrong’s former publicist, was in the audience.
“She heard [us] and wanted to help … it took a bit of
negotiating and working out of the details, but basically, she offered
a jazz scholarship,” Washburne says.
These days The Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program is significantly
larger, with five ensembles and 45 students. Washburne hopes to
further increase its scope by creating a jazz concentration for
music majors and an “Introduction to Jazz Improvisation”
class for musicians with no prior jazz experience.
Ben Fried-Cassorla ’04 is a guitar player and recipient
of this year’s Louis Armstrong Scholarship. Fried-Cassorla,
who has been in a jazz ensemble since his freshman year, has seen
the program grow during the past few years. “Members of the
ensemble get to see what it’s like to get paid to play and
see all the benefits — and problems — of playing music
For many students who had contemplated going to a conservatory
or pursuing a professional music career, the MPP has allowed them
to see the ins and outs of music performance while pursuing a rigorous
| From left to right: Monica
Davis ’05, Mia Pixley ’05, Maria
Sonevytsky ’05 Barnard, Emily Shin ’04,
Marc Dyrszka ’05, and Philip Cartelli
Alicia Lee ’04 is completing the joint program with Juilliard.
Lee, a clarinet player, entered college unsure of how seriously
she would pursue music. Her experiences, and serving as an MPP coordinator,
have cemented her desire to become a professional musician. But
Lee does not regret her decision to back up her musical studies
with a liberal arts education. “It’s important to study
other things. When you go to a conservatory, it’s such a narrow
track. It was important to me to finish and get a degree because
what if music doesn’t work out?”
Lee notes that it has been somewhat difficult to relate her academic
studies — she is a French and Romance philology major —
to her music. But after college, her two interests may converge,
as she is applying to a music conservatory in Paris.
Not everyone in the MPP is a budding professional musician, though.
Faculty and students stress that many students in the program simply
enjoy music recreationally. Lessans, for example, hopes to become
an investment banker. Though he will leave CUO and music performance
behind when he begins his professional life, he values the musical
opportunities the MPP afforded him. For example, at the beginning
of each year, the MPP holds auditions to place students with private
lesson teachers, in the orchestra, or in ensemble groups. “I
was put with the associate principal bassoonist for the NYC Philharmonic,
[who became] my private instructor,” Lessans says. “He
was a professor par excellence for me, and I’ve heard
from other people in the program that their private instructors
through the MPP [also] have been fantastic.”
Most students registered only one complaint about the MPP —
fewer performance facilities and opportunities than they would like.
One of Bradley’s primary objectives has been to increase the
number of performance opportunities for students. “I have
made a real effort to include live performance in the Core Curriculum,
namely, Music Humanities. Students now benefit from regular chamber
and jazz performance by their peers, and for many, this is a highlight
of their Music Hum experience.”
In a coup for the MPP this year, several ensemble groups had the
opportunity to play pieces from Columbia composers at Carnegie Hall’s
Weill Hall in early November. Jonathan Bent ’04, a cellist
and son of Ann Parsons Professor of Music Ian Bent, was in one of
the groups. He appreciated the concert not only for its location
but also for the chance to learn more about Columbia composers.
“Deborah always pushed for better venues … there’s
an air of excitement. It keeps you on your toes,” he says.
MPP faculty hope that soon students will be able to play at Carnegie’s
larger performance venue, Alice Tully Hall. And if Milarsky has
his way, students will one day play in their own Columbia recital
hall. “[We] hope to play in Lincoln Center next year or Carnegie
Hall in the next few years, but I dream of a new concert hall,”
Milarsky said. “It’s millions of dollars away, but it’s
not such a loose dream.”
For information on performances or auditioning, visit http://music.columbia.edu/Musicperform.html.
CUO’s CD is available at the University Bookstore.
Hope Glassberg ’04 is
a political science major who plans to pursue a
journalism career after graduation. Last summer,
she was a reporter for the Panama City (Fla.)
News Herald, and this semester she is a production
assistant for the Lou Dobbs Tonight show