JUILLIARD CONCERTS: THE GREAT SECRETby Richard Kostelanetz
For those New Yorkers devoted to the best classical music, the greatest under-known concerts are those at the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center. As these are ostensibly recitals by and for Juilliard faculty and students, they are rarely advertised. Most are free not just to Juilliard students, but to everyone else as well. Many feature music not customarily heard live, including contemporary compositions unavailable even on recordings. To find out what’s when, you need to go to the Juilliard website and click on the “Calendar of Events” link; if you’re on the Juilliard campus, pick up the school’s monthly newspaper.
Among the regular performers is the great Juilliard String Quartet, still among the best of its kind, who are required to give two “faculty recitals” every year in a stark Alice Tully Hall attractive to no one other than students. Early in 2010 an entire Juilliard wind quartet concert was devoted to compositions by Elliott Carter. After the intermission, Carter himself, now 101, trundled onto the stage for an interview. By speaking coherent sentences, this legendary centenarian stole the show.
Every January, Juilliard presents its annual FOCUS! Festival of several concerts on a single theme, some of which are stronger than others. “California” of 2009 was not as strong as “Charles Ives” of 2004, performed exactly 50 years after Ives’s death, in which all his major pieces were heard. Back in 1995, when Anton Webern was the FOCUS! feature, his spare, complex pieces for small ensembles were performed by dozens of musicians, all of whom had evidently spent weeks rehearsing the legendarily precise works. Only Juilliard would have, in house, enough serious classical musicians to mount such a program.
Around 2000, pianist Bruce Brubaker assigned more than 90 of his students 20th century piano pieces that reflect the influence of J. S. Bach, such as Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. He then presented their performances in ten concerts, one for each decade of the century, often alongside rarely heard legendary pieces. Brubaker prefaced each concert with a short, brilliant lecture. Once you heard one of these concerts it was hard not to return, especially since they were, yes, free.
One truth of Juilliard concerts is that college-age musicians are generally better, and more professional, than college-age actors, writers, or scholars. (Only college-age dancers come close.) A second truth is that Juilliard students are on average more professional than other conservatory musicians and probably always have been. Other NYC music schools give free concerts, some of them pretty good, especially for full orchestras, but not one sponsors concerts in the same league as Juilliard’s.
A few years ago, public television ran an extended feature about Juilliard—not only the music school, but its newer drama and dance divisions. The film’s theme was that this school is remarkably, if not sadistically, tough. I learned privately that one segment the producers decided not to use had the school’s current president, Joseph Polisi, boasting that his institution was “West Point of the Arts.” Wow and ugh. (This wasn’t always true. In an interview published in my Writings on Glass, Philip G. recalls a graduate composition program at Juilliard in the late 1950s where the students were brighter than the faculty.)
In the past few years at Juilliard I’ve witnessed a brilliant chamber concert of British Renaissance music organized by the American-Frenchman William Christie; complete operas by Francis Poulenc, G. F. Handel, and Olivier Messiaen; Monica Huggett directing J. S. Bach; a student percussion ensemble doing Steve Reich; a solo concert by the Juilliard SQ violist Samuel Rhodes; and a Brian Ferneyhough one-person concert so disappointing that his compositions may never again be heard so prominently in NYC.
Here are some more secrets: of the three venues, Alice Tully, on the corner of Broadway and 65th Street, is the largest, the Peter Sharp Auditorium, on Juilliard’s ground floor off 65th Street, is smaller, and Paul Hall, upstairs at Juilliard, is the smallest. Weeks before each concert, tickets become available for pickup at the Juilliard box office only during daytime hours. (This of course gives an advantage to Juilliard students, already on the premises.) The remaining tickets become available again at 7:50, ten minutes before the concert begins. This accounts for the lines of people with anxious faces before each concert. I’ve observed that, except for the Paul Hall shows, everybody finally gets in. (If perhaps you get shut out, consider coming back after the intermission.) Juilliard actors and dancers also give recitals, I’m told, in sum exemplifying the first truth of Anarchist Economics—the best things in life are free.
Now that I’ve revealed this Juilliard secret, you can decide for yourself if you want to tell others.
RICHARD KOSTELANETZ recently completed a second book of essays on innovative music.