A Dialog With Bruce Kovner


Juilliard's President and Chairman in Conversation

Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, looks over Juilliard’s copy of the manuscript of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge with Joseph W. Polisi (left) and Bruce Kovner. 

 (Photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Bruce Kovner, chairman of Juilliard’s board of trustees, for a wide-ranging discussion that focused on Juilliard and, more broadly, on his view of leadership, philanthropy, and globalization. At that time, we were just about to welcome to Juilliard Madame Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, as we announced the Chinese authorization of The Tianjin Juilliard School. We had also successfully launched several projects involving Juilliard Global Ventures, and the second group of Kovner Fellows had begun classes. So it seemed an appropriate time to evaluate the past and talk a bit about the future. What appears below is a distillation of that conversation.


Bruce has been a member of the Juilliard board since 1995 and its chairman since 2001. I started by asking what it is that the chairman of Juilliard does.

Kovner: The first job is to sustain the culture of the institution—that is to help articulate and nurture its values and also to develop effective means to sustain the institution. The chairman’s role is at the level of policy, not administration, and there are financial, personal, and civic components to that role. By civic component, I mean that an institution like Juilliard exists in a web of relationships with other institutions, with its neighbors, with government entities, and with the popular conception of what life in our community should be like. Even as Juilliard solves problems that are internal, it has external responsibilities and connections. The members of the Juilliard board work hard and are devoted to the art forms of dance, drama, and music and, of course, we are all devoted to our wonderful students.


Bruce and I have had many discussions concerning strategic planning for the institution, and they always seem to gravitate toward the topic of what makes Juilliard special. I asked his views on how we can maintain our efforts to always strive to be a better place.

Kovner: The art forms that Juilliard is committed to are “pure forms,” meaning that we can tell the difference between excellence and non-excellence. For me, the commitment to excellence and the sustaining of the ideals of the art form are what make Juilliard extraordinary.


Bruce has been an exceptionally generous public citizen, serving on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera and other charities, and I engaged him about his preference for what he calls “strategic philanthropy.” While just giving money to an organization is admirable and necessary, I know that that sort of passive philanthropy doesn’t suit his personality.

Kovner: I prefer to give in a way such that contributions can be used to enable institutions to do things that substantially improve the health of that organization. For instance, an outsider may be able to ask questions in an organization that insiders can’t or to tilt the balance of forces within it to do something more innovative. When I find a truly remarkable organization, I want to help it be better at what it does. I want to improve the path that it’s on, extending it by improving its financial condition and providing leadership. I’ve tried to do that with three or four organizations but Juilliard is probably number one on my list.


Among the many things Bruce has done for Juilliard has been to plant the seed that became the Historical Performance program, inspired in part by his love of Baroque music. Now Historical Performance is so popular that this fall we had twice as many students requesting secondary lessons in early music as there were places, and Juilliard415 has become one of the most respected historical performance ensembles in New York and beyond. I asked Bruce, who’s an amateur harpsichordist, to explain the background that spawned the proposal.

Kovner: When I came to Juilliard, I found so much wonderful activity, but I was struck by the fact that there was a smattering of Mozart and Bach, but essentially an absence of music from before 1800. I began talking about the possibility of establishing an early music presence here. William Christie, who was a classmate of mine at Harvard, was wildly enthusiastic, and then I could see your enthusiasm and openness to it, Joseph. This is where strategic philanthropy comes in, and where I’ve been so blessed by having financial resources. I could say to you, “Joseph, is this something that we could do? What do you think?” Because, of course, my idea was nothing more than a sort of inchoate notion. And Juilliard became the vehicle to accomplish it. Within a year or so, we had an effective plan and all of a sudden the program was flourishing because of the faculty and the students who wanted to breathe life into it.


In 2009, Bruce contributed his collection of 140 priceless manuscripts and first editions to Juilliard. He had amassed the collection over the course of about 11 years, and it now attracts scholars from around the world to Juilliard. In addition, with the leadership of Jane Gottlieb, vice president for library and information resources, anyone in the world can access these works digitally through a special website (juilliardmanuscript- collection.org). This digital presence was also supported by Bruce. I asked him what drew him to collect what has turned out to be a priceless and world renowned resource for music scholars.

Kovner: On some level, I used to affectionately laugh at people who collected icons of one form or another, and say, “Why do you need this when you can have a reproduction of it?” But I was surprised to find that when I was actually confronted with the objects that had been written out by the great musical minds and spirits of world history, I melted with emotion. I developed a collecting process in which I would buy manuscripts that showed the compositional process rather than so- called “clean manuscripts.” Instead I collected “dirty manuscripts.” I wanted to see what the composer was thinking when he created a work.


More recently, Bruce and his wife, Suzie, created the Kovner Fellowship Program, through which about 46 students a year receive full financial support for the cost of attendance at Juilliard. Like Historical Performance, it’s an example of strategic institutional thinking that is having a transformative impact on the school, and the origins are personal as well as institutional, Bruce relates.

Kovner: I’ve been lucky in my life to get scholarship support when I needed it. I certainly couldn’t have attended Harvard without scholarship support, and that was an extraordinarily important place for me. I’ve always retained a sense of thankfulness that those institutions were capable of helping students like me. The second element was realizing that the institution needed not simply some marginal increase in financial aid, but a program that transformed Juilliard’s ability to attract students who genuinely could not come here without extensive financial support. One afternoon when Suzie and I were talking about it, the idea jumped out that a full scholarship, including tuition and all other normal expenses, would be a revolutionary package for Juilliard and would not only enable Juilliard to compete against other institutions, but also create a critical mass at Juilliard of the very best students. We’ve since gotten a couple years of students in place [the program was announced in 2013] and they’re wonderfully exceeding all my expectations.


While he’s very involved with the specifics of the arts in the world and at Juilliard, Bruce is also a wide- ranging geopolitical thinker, who is concerned about the inherent and utilitarian merits of the arts. His views on the topic were illuminating.

Kovner: The utilitarian side is simply that music is the most universal language humans know. It appears in every culture, and the power of music crosses all national and cultural boundaries, which is useful for demonstrating that there is a common core of humanity in us: the feelings of a Beethoven or a Bach or a Mozart composition translate, whether you’re American or Russian or Chinese. The more we recognize that, the more likely that we will somehow find ways to be with each other. I know that that’s a naïve statement, but I believe, for example, that music speaks directly—and almost without intermediation— to our feelings. We certainly know of people who listened to Wagner in the morning and went out and killed people in the afternoon, and that’s a problem that troubles me a lot. But I do think that classical music finds an important role in opening up communication between cultures. That’s very useful, and it also applies in many of the other arts that I’m less familiar with, including dance and theater. They help connect and lift people to a platform on which they can share with each other and feel solidarity. I’m not sure that will prevent us from having a war, but it’s still hugely important.


That notion of globalism and Juilliard was a topic that Bruce and I first discussed in the summer of 2008. With the deep economic downturn that occurred soon thereafter, the idea took on greater urgency. What came out of many discussions on this topic is Juilliard Global Ventures, an effort to bring Juilliard’s excellence, traditions, and values to various parts of the world in site-based and digital manifestations. One way that commitment to excellence can be echoed throughout the world is through Juilliard’s campus in China; another is by extending the music and performing arts curricula into schools around the world. Bruce offered his perspective on the idea for me.

Kovner: Our efforts must be rooted in the strong tradition and extraordinarily high standards of excellence that are maintained here, but there’s also a tremendous demand around the world for access to this excellence and culture. I think Juilliard is more and more capable of committing resources and adding to the cultural heritage and cultural capacity of the world. Having a strong institutional base in China committed to excellence in the arts will profoundly enrich the lives of those who participate; it will enrich and expand the lives of those connected to them; and it will enrich the world and its cultural components by bringing new and great talent from all over the world into the critical mass of creativity in the world centers. China represents a huge reservoir of talent in many things, music among them. If we succeed in creating a robust base there, I think we will take a step forward for China and for world culture.


With typical modesty, Bruce has credited others with bringing Juilliard to its current stature in the world of performing arts schools, but I can honestly state that without Bruce’s strategic view, vision, and intent on always moving Juilliard forward, we would not have realized our current position as a leader in the field. Often in the world of philanthropy, success is measured in dollars, but there is an even more compelling quality that makes eleemosynary pursuits succeed, and that is leadership. Bruce is a leader who has allowed Juilliard to be properly positioned for the future, nurturing an institution that looks to the needs of the 21st-century performing artist and the importance of the arts within the fabric of our global society. That is a collective legacy of which we can all be proud.

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