Philadelphia native Jeffrey Milarsky (B.M. ’88, M.M. ’90, percussion) joined the Juilliard faculty in 2008; he teaches conducting for non-majors. He also teaches at Columbia and the Manhattan School of Music. Jeff has been the music director of the Axiom new-music ensemble since its inception, in 2006. On December 10, Axiom will perform Toru Takemitsu’s Archipelago S for 21 players and John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and how did you come to know it?
I attended some amazing public schools in Philadelphia. At Central High School, my music teacher, Stephen Wilensky, a wonderful musician and teacher, suggested that I had the talent. He asked my parents if he could take me to play for a friend of his who happened to be a percussionist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. From that point, they crafted a list of teachers, which culminated with my studying with Michael Bookspan, the legendary principal percussionist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Who most inspired you when you were growing up and what did you learn from that person?
Bookspan, without a doubt. I studied with him for three years in high school. I would drive to his house each Saturday and have what was supposed to be a one-hour lesson, but which usually lasted four or five. He was an inspiration to all who met him. I learned focus, drive, mentorship, and most of all, attention to detail.
What was the first recording that you remember hearing or buying?
There are two: Rush’s Moving Pictures and Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Hearing Rush was like a shot in the dark: I had never heard a rock band play with such precision and fire. Muti’s performance of Le Sacre has a wonderful mix of intensity and accuracy—he paints a grand picture structurally, which appeals to me. Often this piece sounds very disjointed and raw, but Muti always makes the orchestra sing through the work’s pastiche of Russian folk music while also insisting on maximum power and depth.
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer?
Looking back, probably my bar mitzvah. I was asked by the band to come on the bandstand to play drum set in “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder. My mother was extremely proud.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be, and why?
I think it is extremely valuable to travel, especially non-work-related travel. I suggest taking the time to discover the United States. I love traveling by car though America. You see such beauty, such open spaces.
How did you make the switch from percussionist to conductor?
In fact, I never have; I have been conducting as long as I have been studying music formally. I had been playing regularly, as a substitute musician with the New York Philharmonic for three or four years when I began having a larger profile as a conductor. I was being asked to conduct wonderful musicians in many groups and then I was offered a position as music professor at Columbia and became music director of the Columbia University Orchestra, so therefore had to limit my playing during the season. At the same time, Alan Gilbert needed a timpanist at the Santa Fe Opera. I was planning to stay only one or two seasons—but I still have that position eight years later, and it offers me a wonderful balance between playing in and conducting the orchestra. Without that balance, I would feel very isolated in my conducting career.
What are your nonmusic interests?
I’m crazy about cars and I own a 2000 BMW M-Coupe that I am very proud of. The only problem is that I have a toddler who cannot travel in the car (no backseat) and my wife, Sarah Wolfson, does not drive a manual. This car may have to be sold in order for us to find a sporty vehicle that we can all enjoy. Or I may just keep it forever!
What else would people be surprised to know about you?
I am a total sucker for our beautiful daughter, Olivia. She is the most wonderful thing that has come into our life. Being a father is such a gift. At least until she begins dating.
If your students could only recall one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
I like to think of myself as a conduit between the music, the musicians, and the composers. Always remember that focus should be uncompromising, dedication to one’s craft immense and unwavering. Also the power of talent and charisma should be cherished and used maturely.
What are you reading and/or listening to?
I am reading a George Szell biography written by Michael Charry. Szell was a giant and I definitely recommend anyone studying the classical literature to investigate his recordings. I am listening to a lot of Schumann songs. I am continually amazed at his ability to inject so much dense emotion into very short chapters or sentences. Truly avant-garde in my opinion. But then again Bach did this as well.
Do you follow any social media?
None. Absolutely not. I love my privacy.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
A doctor or a car mechanic. Maybe a barista.