A Life Devoted to the Arts


In Conversation With Ara Guzelimian

One of the inherent dangers in judging a book by its cover is, of course, the possibility that a totally boring story can be given splashy top billing by the two pieces of glossy cardboard that bind it. There’s no danger of boredom in judging the books (and other mementos) that occupy the second-floor office of Ara Guzelimian, who became Juilliard’s provost and dean in the summer of 2007—unless cultural envy can be counted as a hazard. A bound score of all five of Elliot Carter’s string quartets warmly inscribed by the composer? Check. A personalized hand drum commemorating Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road project at Carnegie Hall? Yep, he’s got that. A sheaf full of pictures with legends like Hans Hotter and Isaac Stern? He called them friends. When reassured that, should the current economic calamity worsen even further, he could always sell some of his treasures on eBay, Dean Guzelimian shrugged off the suggestion: “Oh, they wouldn’t really be meaningful to anyone but me.” Yet spending even a few minutes in his office, one quickly realizes the possibilities of a life devoted to the arts. Dean Guzelimian’s robust and wide-ranging career includes long affiliations with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Ojai Festival. His voice has been heard by classical-music radio audiences from St. Paul to Paris, and he has written articles for publications as diverse as The New York Times, Opera Quarterly, and for the Salzburg and Helsinki Festivals. Immediately before coming to Juilliard, Dean Guzelimian was senior director and artistic advisor of Carnegie Hall. In an interview during the last week of the fall semester, Ben Sosland, the administrative director of the Historical Performance program, chatted with the dean, who shared his thoughts on a wide range of topics.

Ara Guzelimian and Isaac Stern in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2001.

(Photo by Steve Sherman)

Ara Guzelimian in Berlin during a 1991 tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which he was the artistic administrator.

(Photo by David Weiss)

Ara Guzelimian (left) moderating a panel discussion on Rachmaninoff; with student pianist Hong Xu, conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Rachmaninoff scholar Geoffrey Norris, at Juilliard in September 2007.

(Photo by Hiroyuki Ito)

Dean Guzelimian awarding the Peter Mennin Prize to graduating double bass student Salima Barday at commencement in May 2008.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)


Benjamin Sosland: Now that you’ve been on the job for a year and a half ——

Ara Guzelimian: Three semesters, yes.

Sosland: The first question I’d like to ask you is if you can recall what your expectations of the job were and what the reality is, and how they might be the same or different.

Guzelimian: Well, I expected to be exhilarated by the fact that one encounters astonishing talent every day, and that expectation has already been exceeded. And I’m happy to say what I didn’t know coming in was the complexity and the subtlety of a school like this as an organism. Especially with a talented population of artists, both students and faculty, almost every single situation calls for a highly individualized solution and response.

Sosland: Which actually segues perfectly into my second question. My perception of your job is essentially that you make decisions large and small all day about a wide variety of things.

Guzelimian: And that’s a huge part of the stimulation of the job. Every day has everything from decisions about a student’s place within the School, to curriculum decisions, to arbitrating misunderstandings about space usage or rehearsal scheduling. And so every hour has some sort of very interesting and generally unexpected challenge.

Sosland: So do you follow a model of leadership? Are there people from whom you’ve learned how to govern these sorts of layered and nuanced issues?

Guzelimian: I hope that I actually listen well enough in terms of trying to understand each situation and to make a decision that is informed, and that is somehow on the continuum of serving a student’s needs and the School’s needs. I think Joseph [Polisi] sets a remarkable example with a great integrity and generosity of spirit, and a belief in the artist as citizen. When in doubt, I can always apply that model to any decision I’m making.

Sosland: One of the things that strikes me, and I’ve been at Juilliard for a while now, is that there is such a huge investment of time and resources and brain power in the educational process for actors, dancers, and musicians, and I’m wondering how you reconcile that with the reality that, for a lot of people, a career in the arts won’t work out. There’s no guarantee once they leave Juilliard. Does that reality factor into your role?

Guzelimian: Of course it factors into my role and the School’s role collectively. I think that’s where receiving a quality education with breadth both as an artist and as a citizen is critical. And the great hope is that students leave here with a tool kit and a set of experiences that inform them whether they become artists or choose to do something else. And even if they choose to do something else, that their experience as artists informs their lives.

Sosland: The word “unprecedented” is floated around all the time in the news these days. Given the cultural and economic climate of the world, do you think that an artist needs to approach his or her métier with a different set of tools?

Guzelimian: Yes. It’s a little scary because of all the changes going on, and obviously the economic challenges we face collectively as a society are huge. But, being eternally optimistic, I actually think this is a time of enormous opportunity. A lot of conventional, relatively narrow models of careers in the arts are changing. It leaves a huge opening for the artist as entrepreneur, for artists to create their own niches. I tend to look at the arts as a positive force of nature. If you think about a very large body of water going down a hill, or going down an incline, it typically goes down the channel of a river. But if there is an obstacle or a logjam blocking the river, water and gravity will still do their thing and they will reorganize themselves and eventually that water will get down the hill, whether as many smaller streams or even by flowing underground as a spring. And I think we’re exactly in that moment in many of the arts. There are suddenly many more options than simply auditioning for the play, auditioning for the dance company, or a symphony orchestra, or an opera company. There are all sorts of ventures in all of the arts that are artist-initiated in alternative venues by performers creating their own niche.

One of the best and most practical examples I can give is—all my life, I’ve been a record collector. In a funny way, I looked forward to working next door to Tower Records [the now-defunct media store that for years occupied the northwest corner of 66th Street and Broadway], and alas, that mecca of CDs went away. There are still some people bemoaning the decline of the recording industry. What they’re not noticing is that there is more music available now than there has ever been before through personal Web sites, downloads, through streamed concerts from around the world. People say, “Oh, you can’t hear symphony concerts on classical radio anymore.” But if you turn on your laptop, you can probably have your choice of a dozen symphonies or operas from around the world at any given moment. A lot of newspapers are struggling, and their arts coverage is declining because of shrinking ad revenue, and at the same time, there are fantastic blogs emerging that cover the arts in a much more personal tone and with a greater diversity of opinion than was ever available in newspapers. In a sense, you choose your own critics by whichever blogs you read. And I think it’s just reorganizing itself. The smartest and most creative artists are the ones who are responsive to those sorts of opportunities.

Sosland: I think one of the things that scares people is that we are moving away from a model in which there is one “great voice” that dictates what is acceptable and laudable. It’s become democratized. Do you think that the way we do things at Juilliard, are students being equipped to enter the fray of this new paradigm? And are they willing to?

Guzelimian: I think there is a consistency in the institution’s message of artist as citizen and to be responsive and to look outside these walls as often as possible. There’s always room for us to do better. I guess another example is the idea that performing arts centers have always been set apart as “shining cities on the hill,” and part of the physical change that’s going on at Juilliard now is the literal peeling of its skin, which means that the building is becoming transparent. New York City passing by can look in, and we are working while seeing what goes on outside, not in isolation. In a variety of arenas—our outreach activities, our educational activities, the Morse Fellows, the Summer Grants program—I think we are sending a clear signal that it is just as critical to engage with the world at large as it is to practice your craft. Can I jump back to an earlier question?

Sosland: Of course.

Guzelimian: When we were talking about expectations of the job, the one area that has surprised me completely is that, like many people coming in from outside of Juilliard, I always assumed that it was a very imposing institution. But I’ve been deeply moved by how completely personal a place it is. Knowledge and support for students exists in every quarter, from staff and faculty who look after the students with incredible devotion and love, to even those staff who have only the most casual contact with students. I’ve rarely been in a meeting where the subject of a student has come up and there weren’t three or four people at the table who knew that student personally and could fill in a great many details about that student’s progress. There’s a public myth about Juilliard being impersonal and I think that it’s an infinitely more intimate place than I ever knew.

Sosland: I totally agree. Being an artist is in some sense a very solipsistic endeavor—you have to focus on yourself so much of the time. But at a place like Juilliard, which is ultimately quite small, that sense doesn’t necessarily preclude warm human interactions. It’s a very open and democratic place to be.

Guzelimian: I think there’s a pervasive generosity of spirit that does not always match the stereotypical expectation of a high-powered institution.

Sosland: May I ask you what you enjoy most about the job? I won’t ask you what you enjoy least!

Guzelimian: Oh, I’ll answer both! The contact with the students, hands down, is the biggest reward of the position.

Sosland: And that’s new for you, isn’t it?

Guzelimian: When I was at Carnegie Hall, the Professional Training Workshops, which were the young artist training programs of Carnegie Hall, were under my overview, and I became deeply invested in them. And one of the things that made me begin thinking about coming to a place like Juilliard was the realization that some of the most deeply rewarding experiences in my Carnegie Hall career involved being able to offer a guiding hand and providing an opportunity to a young artist. It doesn’t take genius to put on a concert by one of the world’s greatest artists. That’s a given. While at Carnegie I learned a huge lesson from Isaac Stern, with whom I had the privilege of working during the last few years of his life. There was nothing Mr. Stern would not do for a young musician who would stop him walking down the hallway in his tracks and would ask him some detailed question about an audition, or how to get a better instrument, or some other similar question. He would stop and give complete attention. And I thought to myself: if Isaac Stern, at this point in his life, is not too busy and too important to stop and give fully of himself, then the least I can do is try to match that on my own level. And so I got to the point where some of my biggest pleasure at Carnegie was working with young artists, and the opportunity to do that full-time was pretty irresistible. I must say, in addition to that, having been professionally working only in music for most of my life, but personally being a cultural omnivore, the opportunity to work with dance, drama, and music is irresistible.

Sosland: The triumvirate!

Guzelimian: Yes, and it’s still a heady pleasure to be engaged in all three of Juilliard’s areas. What I enjoy the least is very easy: meetings. I may be the “meeting king” of Juilliard in terms of my committee memberships. But I may spend the entire day in meetings and then go see the Juilliard Orchestra play [Beethoven’s] “Eroica,” or Trilogy [the Juilliard Opera Center’s fall production], or New Dances [the Dance Division’s winter performance], or Dancing at Lughnasa [presented by the Drama Division’s fourth-year actors last semester] and life is great, life is fabulous. And it doesn’t have to be on that scale. It may be 7 o’clock and I am walking out and I have a hallway conversation with a student. That’s very meaningful, and it just puts a different light on the whole day.

Sosland: You have the reputation of knowing every piece of music ever written in the Western canon by key and opus number.

Guzelimian: Do you know why?

Sosland: That’s what I want to figure out, actually.

Guzelimian: I spent seven years as program director of a public radio station, which included programming 24/7.

Sosland: In Los Angeles?

Guzelimian: In Los Angeles, at KUSC. And the only real good a job like that does is make you acquainted with every piece of music that’s ever been recorded, and your brain gets cluttered with seemingly useless information—and I’ve been lucky enough to have a career where I can put it to use! That’s how you know the keys of C.P.E. Bach symphonies.

Sosland: I guess somebody has to know them! I haven’t asked you about your family or your personal life.

Guzelimian: Look, it’s an intensely demanding job and my family is very patient. But they too have benefited from becoming involved in all of Juilliard’s activities. There was a jazz concert last year where my son, who has Benny Green on his iPod, got to meet Benny Green! I mean, that was a heady pleasure. Last Sunday afternoon, we came to see New Dances. Then he and I had dinner together, and then we went to see Dancing at Lughnasa. Talk about a perfect evening—and that’s only possible because I’m here.

Popular Columns

Recent Issues