Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Looking Back on Long, Rich Careers 

Looking Back on Long, Rich Careers 

Headshot of Donald Sutherland and Phyllis Bryn-Julson

She was a North Dakota farm girl who had perfect pitch and as a toddler would tell her piano-playing older sister: “Wrong note! Wrong note!” when she hit an errant key.

He was a New Jersey choirboy who adults feared would topple from his perch in the church balcony as he strained to watch every movement of the organist below.

Decades later, Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Donald Sutherland can look back on long, rich careers performing and teaching music. They have passed on their passion for the art to students at Peabody for a combined 70 years. The stalwarts of the Conservatory’s Voice and Organ Departments are retiring at the end of this academic year.

Their paths crossed in the mid-1960s at Syracuse University. Ms. Bryn-Julson had been dazzled by Helen Boatwright’s performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor and was eager to study with her there. Mr. Sutherland had similarly chosen Syracuse for graduate school to learn from Arthur Poister. Mr. Sutherland spied “this cute, young soprano” soon after she arrived on campus, and that was that.

Their talents and skills have led to performances across the globe, but Peabody has been home to both for decades. Early on, Ms. Bryn-Julson realized how thrilling it was to help a student reach a new level of under- standing or achievement — as a student moves up in range from a high A-flat to B-flat and eventually a sustained C: “Once you get your first breakthrough with somebody, you just want to go on with it; it’s addicting,” she says.

They both were fortunate to realize early in their lives that music would be their main focus, and they’ve taught hundreds of students who have gone on to standout performance careers. But they’ve also encountered some students along the way who needed to take a different path, and they were honest with them. Ms. Bryn-Julson had a young student with an incredible voice who had trouble reading music and dreaded performing; she encouraged the student to find something else.

Mr. Sutherland had a student who, unlike his peers, wasn’t eager to play a newly installed organ but instead was always playing the piano. “Why don’t you play the piano instead of the organ?” Mr. Sutherland asked him. “My mother doesn’t want me to,” the student said. “That is the worst reason to do so,” Mr. Sutherland told him. “You need to follow your heart.” The student did and became an accomplished pianist.

Both strive to encourage each student’s unique talents. “I’m not interested in putting out a bunch of cookie-cutter students or Sutherland clones,” Mr. Sutherland says.

Each of them describes a different moment when the path they chose felt resolutely right. Ms. Bryn-Julson talks about the handful of times in which her live performance with an orchestra reached the level of perfection, which she says was only half a dozen times in her entire career.

For Mr. Sutherland, he thinks of solitary moments he had — walking alone past monuments for Handel and others after a session practicing the organ in Westminster Abbey, sit- ting at the manual at King’s College, Cambridge just beneath its magnificent vaunted ceiling — and thinking to himself: “How lucky you are to be part of this great tradition.”

During their retirement, the couple plans on spending more time with their church, the socially and musically minded Bradley Hills Presbyterian in Bethesda, which features a Holtkamp organ designed in conjunction with Mr. Sutherland when he was the church’s director of music.

— Michael Blumfield