Colburn Conservatory of Music prepares the orchestras of tomorrow
By By Charles Koppelman
Jan 04, 2009 | 12:00 AM
"All children, except one, grow up," Linda Brest announces. An oboe student with a streak of pink in her blond hair, she might be verbalizing the innermost thoughts of the peers who sit before her -- some of the nation's finest young musicians on the cusp of their adult careers. Brest is narrating a rehearsal of "Peter Pan," a piece arranged by James Newton Howard. The next day, the Colburn Outreach Orchestra will perform it at Belvedere Elementary School in East L.A.
FOR THE RECORD: Colburn Conservatory: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books section about the Colburn Conservatory of Music said the Jascha Heifetz Studio now at the school was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; it was designed by his son Lloyd Wright. Also, the last name of the executive director of the Colburn Foundation, Ruth L. Eliel, was misspelled as Elial. —
It's midmorning and naturally there are yawns among these college-aged students in their shorts and flip-flops, but their excuse is valid since most have been up practicing for a couple of hours. The orchestra's intonation is pitch-perfect, attacks are precise, and the music swells with deeply felt emotion. Assistant conductor Maxim Eshkenazy stops only twice to make minor adjustments.
Brest, who transferred to the Colburn Conservatory of Music from the much larger Juilliard School in New York, tells me later she was surprised when Eshkenazy initially plucked her from the orchestra to serve as narrator. In the spirit of the Colburn culture, she accepted with enthusiasm. "Musically," she says, "this is the best orchestra I've ever played with."
At Colburn a visitor can observe the pleasures and frustrations of musical learning at the highest level, watch a world-class violinist lead a master class and soak in the energy of young people expressing their artistic feelings. Soon these students will deal with careers and adult responsibilities -- never an easy transition for any college graduate, especially in hard times. For now those concerns are over the horizon. This is the time to hone their skills and live inside the music.
The conservatory and its 105 students occupy a cloister-style campus across the street from Disney Hall. Located here is also the Colburn School of Performing Arts, a community school where more than 1,500 preschoolers to adults study music, dance and drama. This year's incoming conservatory class of 43 was selected from more than 400 applicants from around the world.
James Conlon, Los Angeles Opera musical director, recently conducted the Colburn Orchestra. On the program was Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 and, as he put it, "three very difficult Dvorák overtures."
"They were marvelous," he says. "In five minutes you know the technical level of an orchestra -- this one is very high. In about an hour you know if they can actually digest what you're asking for -- they can. The ability to focus and work every day with the concentration that is necessary, they have all of that."
Surely a big reason students gravitate to the conservatory is its cost -- nothing. Richard Colburn, the late businessman behind the music school, contributed an endowment that saw to those needs. The Colburn Foundation, run by Ruth Elial, provides additional grant support. As she notes, the school serves the larger community such as the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, which has rehearsed here for many years.
Elicia Silverstein, a first-year student, sits ramrod straight in the violin section at the morning rehearsal, wearing stovepipe jeans and low patent-leather heels.
Growing up in Short Hills, N.J., she attended Juilliard Pre-College for six years assuming she'd remain at Juilliard for college. Last year Silverstein and her mother flew across the country for a one-hour lesson with violinist Robert Lipsett of Colburn's faculty. With some anxiety she played the Violin Concerto by Alexander Glazunov. "I was afraid he'd throw me out," she recalls. Instead Lipsett gave her suggestions to occupy a year's worth of practicing. She was hooked on applying for Colburn.
At one-tenth the size of Juilliard, Colburn deliberately focuses its curriculum. It does not, for example, offer jazz, opera or voice programs. "We are strictly performance-oriented," says Lipsett. In that regard Colburn is more akin to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which has 160 students and like Colburn is tuition-free.
In the wind section sits Francesco Camuglia, a first-year flute player from Las Vegas. He's a big guy, but his delicate touch and subtle playing dazzle. "There was lots of competition," he says later about getting into Colburn. "Fifty applications for two flute positions -- 20 were invited to audition."
Was the tryout stressful for the 18-year-old? "It was pretty fun!" he says, wide-eyed, recalling the moment with relish.
Camuglia, like the other students, loves to perform. It's their passion and why they come to Colburn. The faculty shares tricks of the trade and suggests fine points that make the difference between being a very good player and getting a position in a top ensemble.
Michael Byerly, a clarinet player from Oregon, is in Colburn's postgraduate program and studies with Yehuda Gilad, who is also the music director of the Colburn Orchestra. Gilad has played with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale. Dozens of his former students play professionally around the world.
Today Byerly has a private lesson in Gilad's office/studio -- a spacious room with a Chinese wall hanging, an exercise bike and a grand piano. Gilad is a short, compact man with a trim beard and eyes that dance. He's in his stocking feet.
Byerly is about to play "Zigeunerweisen" (Gypsy Airs) by Pablo de Sarasate, arranged for clarinet. Deborah Berman, dean of Colburn, is observing today and suddenly offers to play the accompaniment.
"I haven't played the piano part in a while," she says. "But I can fake it."
Michael returns with the piano music and they begin. Berman was being modest. Byerly plays standing up and attacks this complex piece with the verve, technique and feeling it requires. His virtuosity confirms why he recently became principal clarinet with the Tucson Symphony.
Afterward Gilad describes criteria for being on the Colburn faculty: "Be a virtuoso teacher, have your students come first, offer solutions, place your students in the best competitions and orchestras, and be a mensch."
Indira Rahmatulla, a second-year cello student from Ankara, Turkey, with a bright green muffler around her neck, heads for ear training class. "I'm surrounded by talented people," she says, gracefully guiding her cello case into the elevator. Rahmatulla was second at the 2006 Aram Khachaturyan International Cello Competition in Armenia. She already has top-level orchestral experience in the Chicago Civic Orchestra.
Ear training helps musicians identify intervals, chords, rhythms and other basic elements of music. Colburn students take the class to "visualize what others are playing around them," instructor Doug Dutton explains.
Dutton, who maintains a friendly demeanor with his 14 students who sit around a U-shaped table in a windowless classroom, turns to the task at hand: a Bach chorale. On cue the students begin to sing richly. Dutton stops the group. "Is this a true D-F-A chord? Is two a passing tone?"
One of them volunteers a comment about the music: "It's so awesome."
Like so much about this place, Dutton defies expectations. In addition to teaching music theory and ear training, he owned and operated Dutton's in Brentwood, a treasured independent bookstore that closed last spring after 20 years.
Dutton steps out to the lobby area where his next class awaits. "All right, you guys, get . . . in here!"
Colburn is an enviable hothouse nourishing the growth of tomorrow's top musicians. But it also faces real-world challenges. A recent controversy erupted when the School of Performing Arts phased out the Suzuki method. The approach, which relies on group teaching and memorization, was dropped because it limits preparation students need for later advanced study, according to the school.
The endowment provided by Richard Colburn, worth about $375 million a year ago, according to board Chairman Bob Attiyeh, has dropped in value to $250 million in the financial meltdown. To protect the core music program, several of the 62 staffers are being let go and routine expenses are being reduced. (The faculty numbers 34.)
Recently the school's president, Miguel Angel Corzo, suddenly resigned. Corzo was not fulfilled by the heavy administrative responsibilities, according to Attiyeh, and a search committee has been formed to fill the job by fall.
'Blessed to teach'
It's time for Silverstein's private violin lesson with Lipsett in the Jascha Heifetz Studio -- the original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed practice space violinist Heifetz built at his Beverly Hills home in the 1940s. Several years ago, actor James Woods purchased the Heifetz home and donated this room to the school. It lay disassembled in a warehouse for more than 10 years until it could be reconstructed.
Lipsett has slicked-back graying hair and wears running shoes. The heavy door closes, and there's a noticeable change in air pressure in the hexagonal room. "A perfect acoustic space," Lipsett explains. "There are no right angles, and the walls are made of 2,000-year-old redwood." One of Heifetz's violins is mounted on a shelf. "I'm blessed to teach here," Lipsett says with a smile. "But I never sit in his chair."
Silverstein warms up on a B-flat minor scale and turns to Wieniawski's "Polonaise Brillante," a piece she's learning. Coincidentally or not, this was a favorite piece of Heifetz's.
"OK. Pretty good, pretty clean," Lipsett says as she finishes. "Very good for the first lesson. Now, let's bring out the charm as well as the virtuosity. Relax a little more away from absolute time."
Later Lipsett offers a secret about how to handle an especially difficult passage involving multiple octaves. "It's impossible to play what's written. But is it possible to make it sound like it's written? Yes. By not really playing what's there."
He shows Silverstein an octave fingering that, if played quickly, fools the ear into hearing what the composer intended.
Next Silverstein whips through an étude. She misses a note and stops, frustrated.
"Miss a note -- it's done," Lipsett says firmly. "Don't let the audience know anything happened."
As Silverstein packs up her violin, Lipsett inquires about the daily routine, her stamina and whether she's managing to fit in morning practices. She reassures him. Later, out of earshot, she confesses to staying up until 1:30 the night before, practicing.
It's 3 p.m. and Camuglia, the flutist, is looking for three colleagues from his woodwind quintet. In half an hour the group will begin a master class with Arnold Steinhardt in Colburn's elegant Thayer Recital Hall. Steinhardt is first violinist in the renowned Guarneri Quartet, which will retire from performing this year. Colburn is courting Steinhardt to join the faculty, and this class is one of several mutual tryouts between Steinhardt and the school.
Camuglia, Gabriel Campos Zamora (clarinet), Michael Zuber (bassoon) and Benjamin Anderson (French horn) get settled on the stage. The group tunes up and launches into a run-through of the Wind Quartet No. 4 by Rossini.
Steinhardt, tall and leonine, strolls in and greets the students. "How much would you like to play?" he asks. "All of it?" They nod. He takes a seat halfway toward the back.
The four musicians play with focus and determination. They watch one another carefully, using body language and eye movements to stay together.
"Bravo, beautiful," Steinhardt says loudly when they finish. "You're a pretty hot group."
Now, the master teacher can get down to work. As seems to be the case with all these young virtuosi, the issues at hand have everything to do with nuance and interpretation, not capability or technique. What Colburn offers students at this level is a path for finding their musical personalities.
Steinhardt speaks to Camuglia about using more rubato in a particular section -- stretching the tempo -- and being less metronomic. "I like the idea of freedom," Steinhardt says. "Freedom, but with order. You have to experiment with it."
Camuglia tries the passage again -- a question-answer phrase whose two parts had sounded identical at first. This time he plays the answer slightly slower. The change is simple, but the effect is profound. With this small adjustment the music threads the needle -- straight into the heart.