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Columbia College Today March 2004
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Hitting the High Notes

Music Performance Program helps create community of musicians at Columbia

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 Quigley and student musicians at Steinway 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 says.

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,” he notes.

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 professionally.”

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 academic program.

Student Musicians
From left to right: Monica Davis ’05, Mia Pixley ’05, Maria Sonevytsky ’05 Barnard, Emily Shin ’04, Marc Dyrszka ’05, and Philip Cartelli ’06.

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 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 on CNN.




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