Inspiration and Excellence, Live
When Phillips Church is overflowing on a Tuesday night with a largely student audience—for a classical concert—something good is happening. When it happens three times in four weeks, then Head of the Music Department Peter Schultz feels comfortable saying that the Academy's Gilbert Concert Series has come into its own. Now in its fourth year, the concert series has brought four high-profile performers to campus this year: pianist Gabriel Chodos in the fall and tenor Dominique Moralez, flutist William Bennett and clarinetist David Krakauer with his klezmer band, Klezmer Madness! in February. Coming in the spring for a concert and a residency is the well-known young composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music two years ago. The Contrasts Quartet will give a concert while Kernis is here, performing at least one of his compositions.
In 1998, former Academy trustee Clint Gilbert '47 and wife Jane established the Jane and Clint Gilbert Music Fund to support the department's visiting artists program. The gift grew out of the Gilberts' belief in the value of striving for excellence -- be it a personal best, a technically perfect or a visionary performance -- through music, especially classical music. In a 1998 interview, Jane Gilbert described her experience of being an opera fan, learning that "you can't fully appreciate the ‘highs', i.e., a perfect performance, until you've learned, by exposure or instruction, to know what you are hearing and to understand it."
"At a school like Exeter," says Schultz, "it is essential for students to have access to live performances of the highest level." Logistics prohibit taking any significant number of Academy students to concerts in Boston, Durham or Portland. "It is much simpler to bring the artists to the school," he says. "Then you have the opportunity to expose a lot of students to the music -- sometimes even the whole student body." The concert series is as much about education as entertainment. "One of our jobs as teachers is to expose students to music they might not hear otherwise," says instructor in music Rohan Smith, who conducts the Academy orchestras. If the visiting artists can do some coaching and teaching as well while they are here, so much the better.
Tenor Dominique Moralez spent a week on campus during which he met with music listening and theory classes and language classes. (He spoke in Spanish about being Mexican American and in English about German lieder.) He also coached the concert choir and taught a highly effective master class, in addition to giving a performance during assembly and a recital in Phillips Church. English flutist William Bennett, considered among the best in the world, also gave a class that was "wonderful," according to Smith. "It was about music and life, and Bennett has a great gift for communicating." (Bennett is an animated performer, communicating with his entire body and a strong gaze. He also tells some very funny stories.) One of Schultz's students remarked that she hadn't known the flute could convey such a range of human emotions. "This kind of interaction gives our students a point of connection with the person on the stage," says Schultz. "They are human beings, and students can relate to them."
Schultz worries that children mostly experience music through the mass media and miss out on what's real. "Much of what's out there has been distilled to its lowest common denominator," he says. "It's virtual, and no virtual experience substitutes for the real experience of a person coming out to do their thing, with all its attendant risks." The Gilbert concerts are intimate, since Phillips Church seats about 250 people. "When kids are able to be this close to performers, they participate in a tangible cultural aesthetic," says Schultz. Singer Moralez performed a song cycle of striking Russian poetry (the translations were printed in the program), prefacing his performance with an explanation of the cultural role of poetry in Russia. "Something like that can be the key that unlocks a door for a student," says Smith. The Gilbert Fund also brings music educators to campus. This spring, Jeffrey Langford, head of the doctoral program at Manhattan School of Music and an expert on Berlioz and Byron, will conduct interdisciplinary classes on Byron's influence on 19th-century composers.
The concert series has grown in part because one concert with a good house brings people back for the next one, and because of the excellent concert management of music instructor Jennifer Hand '90. Like most performances on campus, Gilbert concerts are free and open to the public; posters, press releases and mailing lists get the word out from Boston to Maine. "People tell us they moved to the Exeter area because of the concert series," says Schultz. "This time of year," he adds, "one of these concerts can lift you up and make you feel great about being alive."
In her 1998 interview, Jane Gilbert remarked that when a student "comes to understand the intricacies of music, especially classical music, they have found one of the greatest joys of life." The Gilberts' music fund supports the music department in its efforts to introduce that joy into the lives of as many students as possible. "The bottom line about the concert series," says Smith, "is that it's about excellence and inspiration." -lsc