In February 1956, a celebration was held at Juilliard that was to strongly influence the direction I took for much of my life. The event was called “A Festival of American Music.” William Schuman, then president of The Juilliard School, had organized this celebration—six evenings of premieres held over a two week period. The performances included concertos, opera, and solo and chamber works. I was a second-year student at Juilliard at the time.
It was Schuman at his best—bold, brash, inventive. In retrospect the programming was fairly conservative, but what impressed me were the freshness and the excitement of the concept. It was brought even closer by the proximity of the composers and performers, who were my teachers and colleagues.
We need to pause for a moment and turn back the clock so that I can share with you some of what I experienced. Information and ideas were of course available, but not with the speed and ease that they are today. Juilliard was located near Columbia University, which in retrospect seems like a quiet suburb—an area of intellectual pursuit, a slower and less competitive place, not the center of the universe that one responds to today at Lincoln Center. It did not dawn on most of the major instrumental teachers with whom we studied to teach music by living composers. The great composers were all dead, most of them for quite some time. A career is what mattered—this is why you came to Juilliard, right? And careers were not made by playing music that we had not heard many times before.
So along comes William Schuman, not afraid to change all of that, or at least try. On a broad basis I am not sure his success was immediate; he did, however, certainly create momentum, and he did succeed with me.
There were two orchestra concerts performed by the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by a fascinating conductor and personality, Jean Morel—who was later to become my conducting teacher—an artist both loved and respected, especially the latter. There were two concerts of solo and chamber music that included premieres of Mel Powell’s Harpsichord Sonata, played by Fernando Valenti, and Vincent Persichetti’s 10th Piano Sonata, played by Josef Raieff, a piano faculty member with whom I later enjoyed a warm friendship. There was a performance by the Juilliard String Quartet, all of whose members were my teachers then and in the years to follow.
One of the major events of the festival was the premiere of a large-scale opera, The Wife of Martin Guerre, by William Bergsma, who was for three years my L&M teacher. (The story, some years later, was made into an excellent film, The Return of Martin Guerre.) It was unimaginable—here was not only a celebrity (in my mind), but a composer, alive, and my teacher.
The orchestra concerts included a premiere of a work by Bernard Wagenaar, a year or two later also a teacher of mine who gave me greatly needed encouragement. A cello concerto by Peter Mennin, successor a few years later to Schuman as president of Juilliard, was also performed. It was played wonderfully by Leonard Rose, a member of the Juilliard faculty, who, like other performers with solo careers at that time, played very little new music. A piano concerto by Roger Sessions was played by another faculty member, the brilliant Beveridge Webster. Concluding the festival, perhaps the highlight, was the premiere of Schuman’s Violin Concerto in its revised version. It was performed by Isaac Stern, whose most important contribution to music may have been his belief in a new world and his unshakable confidence that he could do something about creating it. His performances were not always endearing to the composers, and this performance was no exception, but Stern did open doors. And this brings me to the point of my essay.
I was a violinist in the Juilliard Orchestra at the festival. To share with William Schuman, Jean Morel, and Isaac Stern, my teachers, and my colleagues the act of creating new music—a new world—was a privilege, an honor. I have had the joy and rewards of sharing this honor and privilege with many students at Juilliard and elsewhere over the past decades. This former Juilliard student with an awakened interest in 1956 is now the violin teacher of the student who will perform the William Schuman Concerto with the Juilliard Orchestra on April 1. His name is Francisco Ladron de Guevara.
Now, every student is unique. Each has special qualities, some in common with other students, but in the end unique. Francisco is in this regard very unique, even extreme. Music swirls in his head at all times, which of course is marvelous; however, it causes slight problems, like confusing days of the week, which results in him forgetting a lesson or class, which in turn ignites a stream of paper from the administration. Last spring Francisco appeared at a lesson as though he were going to a party: “They’ve programmed the William Schuman Concerto for next year. I want to play it.” Over the summer he learned part of it unassisted. In the fall we worked together on it.
The concerto is highly complex; it is not easy to decipher and uncover its form. As is always my way, I felt that I had to decode the piece, which I did and passed this on to Francisco. He told me later that this had been a key move. Well, the next step was that he had to win the concerto competition in order to perform the work. I confess to you my thoughts were split. On one hand, I felt that few could match his music and depth. On the other hand, I was afraid he would show up for the competition in open-toed sandals, wooly hair, and an unkempt beard. The jury would have a glimpse and that would be the end of Francisco. It was not possible that at The Juilliard School, bastion of propriety, it could be otherwise. Well, I was wrong—very wrong. Unbeknownst to me, the jury was composed of three of the greatest exponents of contemporary violin music, including Robert McDuffie, who had worked on the concerto with Schuman himself and performed and recorded it. Evidently they didn’t look; they listened. They heard what I heard—a remarkable talent giving his soul to a piece he believed in.
I wish that Bill Schuman could hear this performance on April 1. Who knows, maybe he will.