Soprano Phyllis Curtain, concert and opera singer and dean emerita of Boston University's College of Fine Arts, gave the following convocation address to the class of 2005.
I am grateful that my long life in the performance—and teaching—of music has given me the opportunity to look out at this assembly of musicians—so many kinds —to salute a rich and multi-skilled faculty, a far-seeing administration, and a wonderfully diverse lot of students, now no longer to be gathered in this intensely active musical community, but, as is so universally expressed, to be out in the world. I am a cheerleader for you today.
Bravi for choosing music—as a composer, a performer, a scholar, an educator, an historian, a theorist, and to do so in a school that lives in the heart of a great university. It is important to be reminded that there are compelling subjects deeply vital and passionately pursued by a wide variety of fascinating people who aren’t musicians!
Some of you have combined disciplines and others have created new ones. All of you are a central part of world culture and of world history.
Looking back with archeologists, we piece together our history from art and artifacts. After wars we mourn the loss of great architecture and other art. We learn a great deal about the Enlightenment from Mozart. From Theresienstadt we have music from the Holocaust, telling us how fiercely the creative spirit persists. From slavery we learn from the tradition of hambone that replaced the forbidden talking drums.
The spirit of man lives on through music, as in no other form of history, because it is alive. In releasing this spirit through our performances, we are informed, enriched and, I earnestly believe, we deepen and nourish our own humanity. Through the decades of singing songs, opera, chamber music, and orchestral repertory, I have experienced far more of the human condition, I believe, than I could have found otherwise. Working with composers on new music I learned how to look at Bach freshly and at all music as newly alive, and, as well, much about my own time I never dreamed of! You are part of this history and will carry it on.
Now that you are leaving this chapter of your life, I am here to wave goodbye and there are a few things I need to say. In 1951-52 Aaron Copland gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. The very first one, from a series named "Music and Imagination," began, "The more I live the life of Music, the more I am convinced that it is the freely imaginative mind that is at the core of all music-making and music listening." I love that statement. As most of us discover, not all the facts, technical skills, and necessary training will make music without the imaginative mind in the lead.
Now this could open discussion on composition, on performance, but no—right now, it provokes some comments on life after Northwestern. You will need imagination to find work in your field, of course, but also to stimulate gifted listeners—to create concertgoers in a current time of overwhelming pop culture.
In my performing years of 1946 to 1984, the professional music world changed enormously. That, too, could be another talk. But to this subject: Organized concert series across the country allowed me to sing 60 to 70 recitals a year. Solo artists and chamber music were all engaged, and occasional touring symphony orchestras. The enormous network of organized audiences died out with television. There were no regional opera companies, only San Francisco, Chicago, and the Metropolitan Opera that were all basically European houses. The New York City Opera certainly used American singers, and we were a fortunate and a happy lot, but only for at most three weeks in the fall and three in the spring. There were lots of oratorio performances with choruses and symphony orchestras. A stalwart and eccentric few of us were interested in contemporary music, but there were not a lot of places to do it.
Today there are many fewer recitals but things are slowly getting better. There are many regional opera houses, they use American singers, and increasingly produce new opera. Graying symphony audiences that prefer the standard repertory affect the budgets of symphony orchestras. Younger audiences are not appearing in significant numbers. There are fewer choruses (Boston is an exception), less oratorio (my generation could make a meager living at it), a growing number of new music performances, and more American music on recital and orchestral programs. This very roughly is the contemporary scene.
Without doubt, the musical scene will change its various emphases in the course of your lifetimes. Atonality, minimalism coming and going, being transformed into new forms, who knows? A revival of the concert scene, perhaps? Young, enterprising artists may do just that. But one thing is pertinent now and will continue to be wholly crucial to your musical artistic lives, deserving, necessitating all the imagination and entrepreneurial skills you can muster. That is the disappearance of significant music education in elementary and many secondary schools. So what is this to you? You need real listeners to take the place of aging music lovers. Fewer and fewer children hear anything but pop music. A school's biggest musical events seem to be the annual musical, the band, and maybe the jazz band. There is very little "real" music on radio and young people don’t listen to it. They have their music on iPods. They do not think of going to the symphony, to opera, to recitals, and to choral concerts. They don’t know they are there or what they are.
Maybe you have a couple of good friends—you’re a string trio, you’re a few singers, you’re a pianist. Become a small performing group together. Imagine a really intriguing program, one a listener may get caught in, find a place to perform—free —a church, a big parlor, a small school, find a way—not easy—to get the event publicized to collect a few people. You have to become impresarios.
On another path, call on the school boards. Offer three concerts of very short, very, very good and exciting music. Have one where you can tell kids all about it. You can do Carnival of the Animals with two pianos. You won’t make any money. But you will get asked back. (In this business, that’s key!) And you will be waking up imaginations in children who may indeed become gifted listeners.
Try the PTA. Give them a concert for parents and children. Be canny about repertory. Many typical adult music lovers only know lush harmonies of the nineteenth century and you have to carefully select things to awaken their imaginations to other sounds. There are indeed outreach programs for youngsters offered by professional orchestras, some opera houses, and splendid extra curricular programs. But I believe one has to get into the schools to reach those children who have no home culture and to initiate a curiosity about music. But you can find ways to do that.
As you go into your lives, I hope you will keep this in mind—the responsibility to nurture the base on which our musical lives depend. Note that I give you the problem, and no answers. That is where imagination, beyond your intuitive, cultivated, artistic sense comes in.
A small personal note: At Tanglewood, I have insisted that my classes be open to anyone walking by. Visitors have to sit in the back of the hall, and I direct nothing at all to them. Some stay a little while. Some come back, and often, year after year. What is the result? A lot of people have learned a great deal about the art and craft of singing and we have built a sizeable audience for our vocal recitals throughout the summer. Some, I learn, have even made financial contributions to the vocal program. And many become audiences for singers in other locales. Good!
One final comment—and what better word from a commencement speaker than the word final—to all you performers. Serve your composers. Don’t present only the dead ones to your audiences.
In sum, you have to find new paths to stimulate new listeners who will want to hear the wonderful things you have to offer, and who will build your audiences.