Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

A Golden Age of Partnership

A Golden Age of Partnership

Peabody’s students are finding unparalleled opportunities to collaborate with—and learn from—the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

By Mary K. Zajac

“Want to try it one last time?” Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop asks Stephen Mulligan, the young conducting student on the podium. It’s less a question than a suggestion, one she has proffered many times this evening to various student conductors during the conducting lab in Peabody’s East Hall. Mulligan gamely agrees before cuing the musicians, the string section of Peabody’s orchestra, to begin in the middle of the first movement, a tango-like passage of Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D. From their seats behind the orchestra, Peabody’s six other conducting students, including Lee Mills, this year’s BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow, follow the score, conducting from their chairs in a kind of secular testifying to the music.

Peabody conducting student Stephen Mulligan, whose dad Gregory is a BSO violinist, says that the mentoring he receives from BSO Music Director Marin Alsop (center) makes Peabody “an ideal place to study.”

Alsop is looking for a distinct character in the conductors’ interpretations of the Stravinsky, as well as a more pronounced reading of dynamics in this tricky passage that boasts a time change and a crescendo. As it builds, Mulligan reaches out with his hand as if presenting something to the musicians, then quickly grabs at the air, makes a fist, and pulls back as if snatching the music out of the air. Immediately, the music hushes in dramatic fashion. Alsop, standing between Mulligan and the Prussian blue curtain behind the podium, nods; she’s clearly pleased with the way Mulligan has absorbed the lesson.

“I love being critiqued by her,” Mulligan, 23, says later. “Marin is really great about teaching you in a way that’s both insightful and productive but has a feeling of openness so that you don’t close up.”

Having Alsop as an occasional teacher is one of the reasons that Mulligan, whose father Gregory Mulligan is a violinist with the BSO, chose Peabody’s master’s program. “My father had been telling me Marin has started these workshops once a semester,” says Mulligan. “As an undergraduate, I’m thinking that’s pretty cool. On top of an already amazing program, Marin’s involvement makes Peabody an ideal place to study.”

“Thanks to [Jeffrey Sharkey’s] vision, we have the opportunity to work together outside the box and create win-wins for both Peabody and the BSO.”

—BSO Music Director Marin Alsop

In addition to their collaborative work at Peabody and the Meyerhoff, Peabody and the BSO are involved in a number of joint community outreach efforts, including the every-growing OrchKids program. Above, the OrchKids rehearse in Peabody’s Leith Symington Griswold Hall in a side-by-side with the Preparatory’s Tuned-In students. Read about the involvement of Peabody alumni in the Winter 2011 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Mulligan and his fellow conducting student colleagues aren’t the only Peabody students to benefit from the expertise of Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Twice a year, composition students hear their works conducted and performed by Alsop and the orchestra. Many students study with Peabody faculty members who also perform with the BSO. And vocal ensembles, including Peabody’s Children’s Chorus, the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, and the Peabody Singers, have been an integral part of BSO performances—from the GRAMMY award-winning recording of the 2008 production of Bernstein’s Mass to the recent November 2011 production of Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher.

“A golden age of partnership,” is how Peabody Director Jeffrey Sharkey characterizes the current relationship between Peabody and the BSO. “It starts with Marin Alsop,” he says, and extends to further collaboration with BSO President and CEO Paul Meecham. “Marin has a fundamental commitment to education and community building, and that is part of our raison d’être at Peabody,” explains Sharkey. “Her commitment taps in naturally.” (Alsop’s appointment as a distinguished visiting artist at Peabody was made possible by a gift in honor of Ryda H. Levi from her children Sandra Levi Gerstung; Vicki and Alex Levi; Susan Perry and Richard Levi; and all the grandchildren.)

Although collaboration between a city’s top music conservatory and top symphony orchestra seems like a natural relationship, the opportunities Peabody students have to interact with the BSO are the exception, rather than the rule. Many music schools or conservatories like Juilliard, Curtis, and Berklee have orchestra members (or in the case of Juilliard, music directors) on faculty. Or they may offer master classes from visiting musicians. While Peabody students benefit from these interactions as well, they are additionally granted chances to be intimately involved with the day-today workings of the orchestra—privileges rarely extended by conservatories on a regular basis.

While Peabody and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are currently enjoying a “golden age” of collaboration, synergy between the two arts organizations is hardly new. Well over a century ago, in 1890, Peabody alumnus Ross Jungnickel (above) launched the first Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with many Peabody faculty players on its roster.

In the ensuing decades, as the BSO’s fortunes waxed and waned, Peabody faculty and administrators—including Gustav Strube and Reginald Stewart (above), and Robert Pierce—played key roles in both organizations. In the 1930s, Peabody and the BSO held joint concerts; in the 1960s, the BSO and Peabody organized the American Conductor’s Project, which allowed conducting fellows to work with an orchestra of both BSO players and Peabody students; and in 1983, Peabody’s renowned Leon Fleisher (below), a member of the piano faculty since 1959, was the featured soloist for the opening of the BSO’s Meyerhoff concert hall.

Too numerous to name are the musicians, over the past century-plus, who have both played with the BSO and served at Peabody. But two stand out for their longevity: Violinist Ruth van Hulysten, wife of the BSO’s first concertmaster, J.C. van Hulysten, was financial secretary for Peabody for more than 30 years; and Mihaly Virizlay, who served on the Peabody faculty for more than four decades, was the BSO’s principal cellist and was named BSO principal cellist emeritus in 2002.

The relationship between the two Baltimore institutions, which began in the 1890s, got a boost in the 1940s when Peabody’s Director Reginald Stewart effectively became maestro for the BSO after it had disbanded in the wake of a musicians’ strike. But an integrated collaboration was slow to develop.

Peabody’s director of ensemble operations, Linda Goodwin, recalls occasions during the tenures of BSO music directors Sergiu Comissiona and David Zinman when Peabody students (primarily vocal students) were involved in BSO productions, and Peabody musicians were often hired as substitutes under Yuri Temirkanov’s directorship. But collaborative opportunities broadened dramatically when Marin Alsop assumed directorship of the BSO in 2007, says Goodwin.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” says Alsop modestly, of the programs she has curated since her appointment. “To be part of the molding and training of musicians and colleagues is very rewarding.”

Alsop gives credit to Peter Landgren, then interim Peabody dean and BSO horn player (now dean of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music), during her first year as music director as a catalyst for the many programs now in place. “Peter was keen to build a relationship between the institution and the symphony,” says Alsop, and he broached the idea of celebrating Peabody’s 150th anniversary with a BSO performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that included some Peabody students playing in the orchestra. “[Peter] made it an event,” recalls Alsop. “It launched the relationship.”

“Jeff Sharkey picked up the ball when he came on board and has worked enthusiastically with me and the BSO to nurture and grow our evolving relationship,” Alsop continues. “Thanks to his vision, we have the opportunity to work together outside the box and create win-wins for both Peabody and the BSO.”

Alsop and Peabody leaders have developed several ongoing programs to give students the chance to immerse themselves in and take advantage of the skills and talents of the BSO.

Conducting students in particular have benefited. “I’m keen on creating as many opportunities for young conductors as possible,” says Alsop, citing three occasions for involvement—the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow position, a two-week tenure as assistant conductor with the BSO that each Peabody conducting student takes on, and the annual opportunity for students to conduct the BSO.

Gustav Meier, Alsop’s mentor, says it’s natural that Alsop would want to get student conductors in front of the orchestra. “After all,” he says, “they [the orchestra] will see future conductors, and they will profit from their experience.”

Stephen Mulligan recalls his opportunity to cover conduct this past September when he took the podium in front of the BSO. Mulligan’s audience included Alsop; Meier and Markand Thakar, co-directors of the Graduate Conducting Program; Edward Polochick, Peabody’s director of choral activities; and BSO guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. “They were all giving me feedback,” says Mulligan. “Five incredible conductors in my first month of grad school. It was unreal.”

Mulligan also received feedback from orchestra members that he says has stayed with him and has helped him improve his communication with musicians from the podium. “Just being in the Meyerhoff watching conductors rehearse, hearing the musicians backstage—the whole professional atmosphere just seeps into you,” he says.

Conducting Fellow Lee Mills cites the chance to talk with guest conductors and to see the day-to-day workings of the BSO as essential training for a future job as a music director. And nothing matches the chance to conduct the BSO, he says. “It’s like driving a Ferrari. The biggest surprise might be how the orchestra responds to your actions. You think they might respond one way and they respond another. It’s invaluable experience.”

Students in other subject areas also get their chance to be part of the bigger picture. Orchestral instrument majors take orchestral repertoire classes taught by BSO musicians who are also on the Conservatory’s faculty, and although each instructor’s approach varies slightly, the goal remains the same: familiarizing students with the orchestral repertoire so they are prepared for professional auditions.

The BSO’s principal flute, Emily Skala, a member of the orchestra for 23 years and the faculty at Peabody for 22 years, describes her class as a combination of individual performance and peer adjudication. Not only do students need to be well-prepared with a polished major excerpt for their audition, she explains; should they get into an orchestra, part of their professional responsibility will include sitting in on and evaluating subsequent auditions.

Peabody students also have opportunities to sit inside a given orchestral section and gain what Skala terms “another level of understanding.”

“One of the most important things to do as an ensemble member is to play off one another,” she explains. “When you actually sit next to somebody and meld sound with theirs you reach another level of cellular understanding.” Skala cites the 150th anniversary concert as a “tremendous” example of how students benefit from playing with the professional musicians. “I really thought the kids rose to the occasion brilliantly,” she says. “They found it exhilarating to be part of the orchestra. That, for me, was transformative.”

Composition students, too, benefit from access to a professional orchestra. “It’s a fantastic, nerve-racking, terrifying educational experience,” says Michael Hersch, chair of the Composition Department, of the annual BSO readings of Peabody students’ compositions. “For Conservatory students to be able to have something read by a symphony, with an [orchestra and] conductor the caliber of the BSO and Marin, is beyond their wildest imaginations.”

Symphony access for young composers is extremely rare, Hersch stresses, and the feedback from both Alsop and symphony orchestra musicians is both seminal and necessary for growth. The experience “shines a spotlight and confronts students to think about what they do in a way that wouldn’t happen in a less pressured situation or with their peers.” In front of the orchestra, he adds, “they grow up fast.”

Perhaps the largest and most public collaboration between the two institutions took place in November 2011 with the production of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher at both the Meyerhoff and Carnegie Hall in New York. The performance’s vocal ensemble included members of the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and the Peabody Singers, under the direction of Edward Polochick; the Peabody Children’s Chorus, under the direction of Doreen Falby; and members of the Morgan State University Choir and the Concert Artists of Baltimore.

“It is so good for our children to see how making music works in the real world,” says Falby. “We try to educate our singers to be as professional as possible, but there’s nothing like experiencing the real thing to reinforce so many of these lessons.” Falby notes how gracious the adult chorus and orchestra members were to her singers during rehearsals, applauding for the children if they were dismissed early. Adds Falby, “The children respond remarkably well to Maestra Alsop. They think she is very cool—intense and strict, but cool!”

Caitlin DeLatte, a 17-year-old Centennial High School senior, seven-year veteran of the Peabody Children’s Chorus, and a soloist in Jeanne d’Arc, says she was moved by “working with such amazing, inspirational people.” DeLatte received breathing and phrasing tips from Alsop and met adult choir and orchestra members, but most important to her, she says, was “gain[ing] the confidence and knowledge that I can perform at this level.”

Jeffrey Sharkey hopes for more opportunities like these for singers and instrumentalists at the Conservatory and the Peabody Preparatory—particularly opportunities for Peabody orchestra students to play side by side with members of the BSO. Such occasions inspire students to work harder and “just strengthen the symbiotic relationship.”

“I think Marin is one of the people pointing the way to changes in the music profession,” says Sharkey. “We want Peabody to be part of those changes.”

Mary K. Zajac is a Baltimore-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Style, Baltimore City Paper, and Saveur. She is also co-host, with Jonathan Palevsky, of WBJC’s “Word on Wine.”

Photo at top, from left to right: An OrchKid (trumpeter) is mentored by a Tuned-In student (flutist); the Meyerhoff, the BSO’s home, is also a familiar rehearsal/performance venue for Peabody musicians; Emily Skala, faculty artist and BSO principal flute; the Peabody Singers performed with the BSO in November in Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher; Lee Mills, current BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow.