Juilliard President, Joseph Polisi, reveals the music that changed his life – from Gregorian chants to a popular tango – along with his favorite composers: Mahler and Bartók.
He explains why audiences are rejecting contemporary music, why Juilliard’s technically dazzling students have difficulty developing distinctive musical personalities and why more than 70% of the School’s piano students come from outside the USA.
“Easter.” Gregorian Chant [Excerpts] Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes. Dom Jean Claire, Director. Paraclete Press S.822.
Franz Joseph Haydn Sinfonia Concertante . [Third Movement] NBC Symphony Orchestra. Arturo Toscanini. Robert Bloom, oboe; Mischa Mischakoff, violin; William Polisi, bassoon; Frank Miller, cello.
Béla Bartók Concerto for Orchestra . [Second Movement] New York Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein. CBS Masterworks MK 44707.
Elliott Carter Eight Etudes and a Fantasy . [“Quitely” and “Intensely”] Michael Faust, flute; Christian Hommel, oboe; David Smeyers, clarinet; Dag Jensen, bassoon. CPO 999 453.
Ralph Vaughan Williams Hugh the Drover, or Love in the Stocks . [Excerpt, Act I] Corydon Orchestra. Matthew Best. Corydon Singers, The New London Children's Choir. Hyperion 22049.
Carlos Gardel Por una Cabeza (“By a Head [of a Horse]”). The Tango Project. “Scent of a Woman” MCA Records. MCAD 10759.
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 8 . in E-flat major (“Symphony of a Thousand”). [Conclusion, First Movement] London Philharmonic Orchestra. Klaus Tennstedt. EMI Classics 5 72949 2.
Kaplan Welcome back to “Mad About Music” as we start our new season with a 100 th anniversary celebration of The Juilliard School with my guest, the President, Joseph Polisi.
Kaplan He started out to be a musician, a bassoonist, but soon left to pursue a new career by completing a Master's degree in international politics and diplomacy. But he couldn't bear to give up music, so he returned to his studies and completed his doctorate in music. But his managerial skills quickly landed him, fresh out of school, the position of Dean at the Manhattan School of Music. And after a short stint running the University of Cincinnati 's Conservatory, he was appointed at Juilliard. Joseph Polisi, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Polisi It's a great pleasure to be here, Gil.
Kaplan Now, in describing your background, our regular listeners will already have detected that you are maybe a first for “Mad About Music.” So many of our guests started out their careers in music, only to have abandoned them, often to enter politics and diplomacy. You, on the other hand, have done just the opposite, studying political science and obtaining a Master's degree from the leading school of diplomacy, the Fletcher School . And watching you in action over the years – we should confess we know each other – I must say that you would have been a superb diplomat, but then all of a sudden you abandoned that idea and enrolled at Yale to study music. How did that happen?
Polisi Well, Gil, I always loved music, I was a bassoonist, starting in seventh grade, studied with my father, and it was something that was extremely important to me in my life, and when I went to Fletcher, in fact, I had no more time for music, because I was studying so intensively. And I missed it enormously, and it was 1970, and the time of relevancy, and what was most important, individuals, and perhaps it wouldn't have happened in 2005 but it did happen in 1970, and I decided that I really wanted to get my advanced degrees in music, and I was fortunate enough to get into the Yale School of Music, and started studying there. But because I was primarily involved on the classroom side with political science and international relations and international economics, I had not taken a lot of music history and music theory courses, so I needed to catch up there. And it was one of the great and fortunate experiences of my life intellectually because I was put in a class in music from recorded beginnings to 1530, taught by a brilliant, brilliant teacher named William Waite, who was a great musicologist and in fact was a specialist in 12 th century polyphony, the rhythm of 12 th century polyphony, pretty esoteric. And the first class, he walked through the door, didn't say a word, turned on a record, in those days, and we heard magnificent bells ringing and birds chirping, and then the chant from the Abbey of Solesmes in France. And this was an absolutely transformative experience for me.
Kaplan Ancient bells and a Gregorian chant from a collection of music for Easter. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, in Solesmes, under the direction of Dom Jean Claire. The first selection of my guest on today's edition of “Mad About Music,” the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi. One of the first works he heard as he began his musical studies at Yale. Well, you mentioned that it was your father who brought you to the bassoon earlier. Now, he comes up again and it is a mastery of understatement in a way, because as I understand it, your father, William Polisi, was one of the foremost bassoonists of our time, having served as principal bassoon not only with the New York Philharmonic, you mentioned at that time, but I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, he was also at one time the principal with Arturo Toscanini at NBC and at the Metropolitan Opera.
Polisi Well, as you said, Gil, he was one of the foremost bassoonists of his time, and taught at Juilliard for over 30 years, and did many important premieres of music of the 20 th century. And one of his great experiences was playing with Arturo Toscanini, who he simply worshiped. Toscanini, of course, was very demanding; could be an extremely angry man on the podium, but my father always said, he was the ultimate musician, and the joke going around was that his ears were so good, Toscanini's, that he could hear grass grow. And so there was a great admiration for him, and my father had the opportunity to do these national broadcasts at least once or twice a week, from Studio 8H. And the excerpt you're going to hear is rather extraordinary, as far as I'm concerned, because it's a work by Haydn, which is still not played that often. It's his Sinfonia Concertante in B flat for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon, and it's with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, it was broadcast in 1939, and this is what you'll be hearing. The third movement, which is a wonderful combination of recitative for all of the instruments and some very technical sides that are quite fun to listen to.
Kaplan The Third Movement of Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante , performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, with soloists including William Polisi on the bassoon, the father of my guest on today's edition of “Mad About Music,” the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi. Let's talk about your work at Juilliard. I think it's fair to say that the school is recognized by most people as the foremost conservatory in the world. But one of the problems I have observed – I think others have also – is that Juilliard therefore faces what is perhaps unreasonable expectations from students, many of whom have high hopes of being perhaps the next Yo-Yo Ma, or Isaac Stern, and of course, out of the 500 students, only a few will achieve that.
Polisi That's an extremely important point, and one that we focus on almost instantaneously when the students arrive at school. This whole concept of success or failure in the arts is something that can be so dangerous if it's misunderstood, and to think of a young violinist, for example, would think that it's failure to be a chamber musician, or an orchestral musician, as opposed to being a soloist. That's a very, very sad and inappropriate type of way of approaching life, as well as approaching the profession. If you lose the joy of making music, then you lose everything. And that's inexcusable and shouldn't happen.
Kaplan Well, you know, I mentioned Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern as prototypes. I mean, how many students at any one time at Juilliard do you have who are potentially that category of success?
Polisi A handful. There will always be below one percent in any cohort.
Kaplan Juilliard is, of course, an international school, and I understand that about one third of the students come from outside the United States , but I was struck by another figure, that 70 percent of the students studying piano apparently come from outside the United States , with a special emphasis on Korea . I'm wondering why it should bulk up so much in piano, and whether there's something wrong in the way we are teaching piano at the moment in the United States .
Polisi I don't think that there's any question that the view of acoustical piano – we should probably make that difference from amplified piano, or electronic piano, has changed so much in the United States over the past 50-55 years. The idea of piano instruction, although still growing to some degree, is not what it was back in the 50s or the 60s, when every child was expected to have some abilities on the keyboard. Now, with electronics, with pop music to some degree, with less emphasis in the schools on music education, we're finding that that instrument, in particular, in terms of its classical mode, is being approached in a very, very different way in the States, than it is from most other pianists around the world. So, as a result, when you apply to Juilliard as a classical pianist, so to speak, there's repertoire that you have to know, whether it's middle Beethoven sonatas, etc., that you just can't pick up at the age of 16, it has to be a long process.
Kaplan I understand that the Juilliard Orchestra will go on a tour next year, and will play Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra , a piece really designed to show off each instrumental section, and I see you've selected it as one of the works you'd like us to play.
Polisi Yes, the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra , though, was premiered in 1943 by Koussevitzky, who was such an extraordinary champion of new music at that time. It is obviously one of the great pieces of the 20 th century, and it shows off any orchestra so well, so especially on tour, it's a treat for us to be able to feature the various sections of the orchestra, to hear string sounds, to hear winds, brass, percussion, and that's why we all thought it would be a great showpiece for our orchestra, as in this second movement, which allows the audience to hear many of the instruments in pairs.
Kaplan The Second Movement from Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra , the New York Philharmonic led by Leonard Bernstein, a movement that features pairs of instruments, including bassoons, the instrument of my guest on today's edition of “Mad About Music,” the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi. When we return, we'll explore why the audience for contemporary music is so small.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan, with my guest, the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi. Now, as you celebrate Juilliard's 100 th birthday, I was struck by an observation you expressed, that “some observers believe that classical music will have a great difficulty generating new audiences, or public financial support, or sufficient careers to accommodate many aspiring musicians.” And here is an example why I thought you would be a superb diplomat, by including in your comments the words “in the opinion of many observers.” But I would be remiss, I suppose, if I didn't ask you—after all, you are one of the most astute observers of the classical music world, what your own view of the situation is.
Polisi From my perspective, there's no question that the traditional way of selling tickets or shaping a concert program with a symphony orchestra probably does need to be readdressed. Very, very vociferously, but I would say that the young people coming out are ready to go and will change the world for the better if they're allowed to.
Kaplan I guess the follow-up question ought to be, why are audiences no longer willing to listen to the traditional format of a classical symphony, surrounded by a concerto, perhaps an overture? I mean, what has gone wrong that that music no longer appeals?
Polisi I don't know if it's gone wrong, or that the music doesn't appeal. But I think the format is very old-fashioned. Let's face facts. It's a tradition that goes back to the mid-19 th century for sure, and we simply live in a different world from 1872, and whether it's technology, whether it's a different type of life style, we have to address the concert format, for example, but I think within the context of that, the music itself is still deeply appreciated, it is still deeply moving, even for the uninitiated. And I think the adjustment is in the context of presentation, rather than the music itself.
Kaplan Well, this would be a good moment for me to make a disclosure to the audience, because you and I of course are associated together, as I am a member of the faculty of the Evening Division at Juilliard, which is outreach, outreach to people who should love music, or who do love music, and I've done this for about five years, and I notice that it's always quite an older audience. Now, maybe it's older people who have more time in the evening to come to a class, but what is the goal of that Evening Division?
Polisi The goal of the Evening Division is to present what Juilliard teaches during the day, to a larger audience who may not have the experience in reference to being a matriculated student at Juilliard, but still they love music, as you said, and we can provide them with experiences in terms of music theory, music history, and a wide range of music appreciation courses, that are sought after by these adults. Each term we have close to 700 students, who come for study there, so it's a very, very popular phenomenon.
Kaplan As we talk about the problem of finding new audiences for classical music, one of the reasons for this, in my view, must be the nature of new music. After all, we go to Broadway to see new plays, new musicals, re-runs, revivals are fun, and they succeed sometimes, but it's largely the new work that attracts, and this is not the case in classical music. And Pierre Boulez was on our show last month, and he said that new music has always had a small audience. But something clearly has gone wrong between the composer and the listener. I know this is a difficult subject for you as the President of Juilliard to discuss in a candid way, but I must confess that some leading conductors, who are afraid to discuss this publicly, believe that it is in human nature to want to hear tonal music, to fall in love with melody, and this is certainly not part of contemporary music. So, what has gone wrong in the compact between the composer and the consumer?
Polisi Well, I would disagree with the premise that tonal music is no longer being written. New music, in fact, the extraordinary thing is that it's come back to a ten-fold degree. The issue of new music has, as Boulez has said, is always challenging to audiences, and whether we look back at the critiques of Brahms, or even Beethoven or Mozart, for that matter, when they were challenging, it became very difficult for those audiences, and I think, as opposed to theatre and dance, music needs a good deal of introduction and initiation of style and technique and structure before you can truly appreciate what you're hearing in new music. And that takes time, and then takes dedication; in fact, that's something we do in our Evening Division, we were just talking about. So it's not an instantaneous click, which you might see in a play or in a dance presentation.
Kaplan Well, you know, I wonder. I recall that Bernard Holland, when he was the chief critic for The New York Times , wrote that audiences were a bit tired of constantly being told that the only reason they didn't appreciate contemporary music was because they were uninformed, uneducated. He suggested that neither time nor dedication, as you just mentioned, will overcome many people's dislike for what they regard as basically unpleasant sounds. The question is, how composers feel about this? Many years ago, Milton Babbitt, a member of your faculty, wrote an article with a curious title, although I'm not sure he actually wrote the title himself, “Who Cares if They Listen?”.
Polisi I think any musician wants to communicate his or her art. In defense of Milton, I will say, who's a wonderful member of our faculty, and I think wrote that, it's almost 50 years ago, if not – he contends that that title was not his.
Kaplan Well, I said that….
Polisi … and in fact, if you know Milton, although his music can be quite difficult to penetrate sometimes, in terms of comprehensibility, he very much cares about how people listen to it. I think any composer truly does.
Kaplan Well, talk a little about Elliott Carter, as he's the representative you brought today.
Polisi Well, Carter, now in his late 90s, is really the manifestation of both intellectual and emotional growth of the American composer. He's spanned the entire 20 th century. And the piece that I chose, which is for four woodwind instruments – flute, oboe, bassoon and clarinet – called Eight Etudes and a Fantasy , is a comparatively early work of Carter's. But this is an interesting case in point, Gil, in the sense that it's a piece that's perhaps more interesting to play, than it is to listen to. And it's an awful lot of fun to play, and it was one of the most challenging pieces that I've ever played. And yet, sometimes when I talk to audiences about it, they find it a little bit abstract or not engaging.
Kaplan Well, as you've now scared us by saying this music is more interesting to play than to listen to, you'd better describe for us what we are going to hear.
Polisi We're going to hear two short etudes, that have to do with, in the first case, extraordinary technique based on a tiny melodic morsel that's very difficult to play, and very fast, and brought together. And the second one is quite clever, is just one pitch, a G, that is played by all four instruments, one hopes at the same intonation. And what Carter did here was extraordinary in terms of testing the technical and expressive limits of the four instruments.
Kaplan: Two etudes from Elliott Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy , with soloists Michael Faust on the flute, Christian Hommel on the oboe, David Smeyers on the clarinet and Dag Jensen on the bassoon. One of the choices of my guest on “Mad About Music,” the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi. As we talk about the development of music over time, as we've been doing, one question we haven't touched on yet, and that is, musical personality. What are the musical personalities that Juilliard is creating? Now, a member of your faculty, Glenn Dicterow, the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, appeared on “Mad About Music,” and he suggested, in response to my question, that many violinists are dazzling and talented, but seem to lack that unique personality that we associate with violinists from an earlier period. Let me play you what he had to say, and then ask for your comment.
Dicterow This is a very loaded question. I do agree with that. I believe that certainly in the 20th century, the early part of the 20th century, we had such incredible stylists, such as Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Szeryng, Grumiaux. Everyone was recognizable in about around ten seconds. There was such a particular style, I think the same goes for acting, and for opera, I think that there was just a lot more individual, charismatic type of artistry out there.
Kaplan Do you have a theory, then, as to how do we get to this situation?
Dicterow I think part of the thing was that we're overexposed to too many recordings and too many performances, it's just too much of everything right now. And that we tend to imitate a little too much, and I don't think that those artists from the early 1900s of course had that media available to them.
Kaplan So that was Glenn Dicterow when he appeared on “Mad About Music” earlier, and he's talking about musical personality, and what makes it, what doesn't make it. What is your reaction to that?
Polisi I agree with Glenn. I think that the recording experience has locked in a type of stylistic approach, there's a greater desire to experience technical perfection than in an earlier age, and that does stamp down on different personalities. So it seems to be a direction that is taking place. I will say, however, that it's not appropriate, I think, to indicate that the young soloists today and the young artists today don't have personality. They do. And I think that what they have to fight against, though, is this recording environment, which, as I said, provides this technical perfection concept, which therefore cuts down on interpretation.
Kaplan All right, let's turn next to opera, which is also a major concentration of Juilliard, and you've selected one for us to listen to today – a work that is rarely played. But before we talk about that, let's return to the contemporary music question again. Why are there almost no contemporary operas embraced by audiences today?
Polisi I think the issue of contemporary opera is really the issue you're getting at, which is the beauty of the voice, the aria and how dramatic presentation can work in relating music to the spoken word. And that's where I think we have problems, in emotional intensity, within new opera. It does work, but not to the extent that you're going to be enraptured by a Tosca , or for that matter, a Marriage of Figaro , or a LaBohéme . And until contemporary composers are more and more comfortable with the melodic line and the beauty of the voice, as part of the operatic experience, which to some degree had been rejected but is coming back as well, now, the traditional opera fan is not going to be the one who's going to jump on the bandwagon for new opera.
Kaplan Well, for that reason, it's such a joy to discover a new opera which is, in fact, an old opera, and that's the opera you've brought us today.
Polisi I thought when you asked me to provide an opera, there's so many great operas out there that we all love, but I thought it would be fun to, as you say, bring something that was in fact written by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1924 called Hugh the Drover , and I did not know the work until we produced it at Juilliard in the early 1990s with Frank Corsaro directing it, and he was very excited about the piece, and it's an exceptional work of great energy, great joy, great beauty, set in Napoleonic times, in England in the Cotswolds, and great arias and a lot of fun, an enormous chorus, and it's certainly a work that the Metropolitan Opera I think would have great success with. And the beginning of it, it just starts off with a great energy that's involved throughout the whole opera.
Kaplan The opening moments of Vaughn William's opera, Hugh the Drover , with soloists the Corydon singers and the New London Children's Choir, and the Corydon Orchestra led by Matthew Best. An opera rarely performed, but was presented by Juilliard, and especially appreciated by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi. When we return, we'll hear Joseph Polisi's “Wildcard,” a work from outside the classical or opera music.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest, the President of Juilliard, Joseph Polisi, and we come to that part of the show we call the “Wildcard,” where you have an opportunity to pick music from outside the classical musical/opera genre, and it can be anything. Rock, jazz, we've had wonderful selections over the years, and what did you bring us today as your “Wildcard”?
Polisi I brought you a tango that was composed by Carlos Gardel, Por Una Cabeza . And this is a bit of a story, because I had first heard the melody in the film, “Scent of a Woman,” and I thought it was charming and I've always found tango to be a fascinating experience, how people can dance in such a sensuous and in many ways, emotional way, with all sorts of variations of movement that seem to be quite choreographed, but yet are not. And very recently, our wonderful daughter Katherine was married to a fine young man, and she announced that her first dance would be a tango. And not only that, but that her parents would have to join her on the dance floor to also dance tango. And since I had never danced tango, my wife and I had to go off and take lessons, and we feel in love with it. I think we're going to continue to dance tango in the future, so now the Gardel work has that much more importance to me, and will always be in my memory in a very, very happy and joyous way.
Kaplan Por Una Cabeza , a tango by Carlos Gardel. The “Wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” the President of Juilliard, Joseph Polisi. A tango many of us will remember from the movie, “Scent of a Woman,” but that will always be embedded in his memory, having just danced to it a few months ago at his daughter's wedding. From the elegant simplicity of Por Una Cabeza , we wind up your musical selections with one of the monumental works of the repertoire, Mahler's epic Eighth Symphony. What is your connection to that?
Polisi I'd always been fascinated from afar by Mahler and it took me a great deal of time to get through the material, and I studied it actually quite carefully with scores; I'd played the First, the Fourth, the Fifth, the Ninth. But I had never played the Eighth Symphony. And when I came upon the Eighth Symphony, I was overwhelmed. I just couldn't believe that so much sound and so much emotion could be packed into even a symphony orchestra with chorus and soloists. So it's always been my ultimate musical experience in many, many ways. I've always wanted to have the Juilliard Orchestra perform it sometime, and we will. Sometime in the near future. The first time I ever heard it live, was with the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Robert Shaw in Carnegie Hall, and what he did was put all of the choristers, many of the choristers, I should say, in the first boxes of the hall, so that the audience was only in the orchestra and up in the top balconies, and you were surrounded by sound, since there were choristers and orchestra on stage as well, with the soloists, so it's a recollection that will always be in my brain, and it's something that I always go back to when I need to be energized.
Kaplan The thrilling conclusion of the First Movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 8. Often called “Symphony of a Thousand,” because there were a thousand performers on the stage at the premiere in 1910. Huge orchestra with an organ, eight soloists, and three choirs. This recording, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Klaus Tennstedt, the final selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi. As Gustav Mahler was always preoccupied with the way things end and the way they are reborn, as we come to the end of the show, let's talk a bit about your own future. For someone who has served as the President of Juilliard for 21 years, you are remarkably young. Do you imagine this will be your final job? Or, if not, what might you do in the future? I read somewhere, maybe it was a joke, that you might want to become the commissioner of baseball.
Polisi I don't think I'd want to take on such a stressful position as the Commissioner of Baseball, although I love baseball. I think, yes, there'll be another job, and I think it's important that there always is continuity of leadership in any institution, and I've been privileged to be at the school for, as you say, 21 years now. I think there are a few things I do want to conclude. And that in particular is the celebration of our Centennial, which will take place in the academic year, we're just beginning now. And then I also want to complete the construction and the fund-raising for the addition to our new building, which will be close to 75,000 square feet of new space for rehearsals, classrooms, office space for faculty, special performance spaces, special new technology centers. It'll be something that I think will really allow us to blossom even further as an institution, and we won't be increasing enrollment by the way, it will be just more work space.
Kaplan Well, on that note, Joseph Polisi, thank you for appearing today on “Mad About Music,” and for your steadfast commitment to prove all the pessimists wrong and keep music at the center of our lives. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”