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Slatkin Celebrates Schuman Centennial

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That 2010 marks the centennial of the birth of American composer William Schuman should be no surprise to members of the Juilliard community. As the subject of the recently published biography American Muse by Juilliard President Joseph Polisi, Schuman’s contributions to the structure and curriculum at the School, where he served as president from 1945 to 1961, and to the development of Lincoln Center, over which he presided from 1961 to 1969, are well known. Indeed, the name of this visionary educator and dynamic musician is spoken here frequently, and with great reverence. However, it is only with the turning of the calendar’s page that we have an opportunity as an institution to examine his artistic personality by performing some of his most substantial contributions to the repertoire. On April 1, the renowned conductor and Juilliard alumnus Leonard Slatkin will lead the Juilliard Orchestra in an all-Schuman program, a special addendum concert which rounds off this year’s Focus! festival, a celebration of music by Schuman and his contemporaries.

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Though not a regular name on concert programs in recent years, Schuman was one of the most admired, respected, and widely performed composers of his generation. Along with contemporaries such as Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, David Diamond, and Walter Piston, he helped create a truly American symphonic style. His works were championed by conductors such as Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky, and were commissioned by many of the nation’s pre-eminent ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra. Schuman’s compositional legacy includes 2 operas, 10 symphonies, 5 string quartets, 5 ballets, several concertos, and numerous shorter works for orchestra and symphonic band.  

The Juilliard Orchestra will present two of his most important works: his Third Symphony and his Violin Concerto. The symphony was a watershed piece in Schuman’s career, garnering for its author attention on a national level almost immediately upon its 1941 premiere. It also received the first New York Music Critics Circle Award. The Violin Concerto, originally written for Isaac Stern, who gave its 1950 premiere, is often considered one of Schuman’s masterpieces.  

In a historic touch, at the beginning of the concert’s second half the six-minute slow movement of the concerto will be played for the first time since 1950. Schuman made significant revisions for the concerto’s next public performance in 1956 and deleted the movement. President Polisi provided a copy of the manuscript, which is held by the Library of Congress.

Though Slatkin attended Juilliard slightly after Schuman’s tenure ended (from 1964 to 1968), the two became close friends and colleagues. “The very first piece I ever conducted outside of school was his New England Triptych, which I did with the New York Youth Symphony in Carnegie Hall,” Slatkin said in a recent interview. Schuman “came to that and we struck up a great friendship which lasted through his entire life,” he added. “I spent many hours with him, commissioned a couple pieces from him, and did a lot of [his] music. I really love it. It has style and substance and reflects a particular time in American musical history. He was one of the last of the great American symphonists.”

“In putting the program together, we thought about what was the best way to honor him musically,” Slatkin continued. “Clearly, the touchstone piece for everybody is the Third Symphony, a work that I think is important for young people to get to know early. It’s a piece they will probably encounter again in their musical lives, and is, of course, very virtuosic, showing off all the sections.”  

In choosing the repertoire for the rest of the concert, Slatkin wanted to find a major work that features a soloist but also challenges the entire ensemble.

“Because it’s always been a tradition to have a student competition winner play a concerto, I thought it was a good idea to have [Schuman’s] Violin Concerto, a work written about 10 years after the symphony,” Slatkin said. “It’s a work that I’ve done a couple of times now. It’s like a big symphony with a violin thrown in. So it’s not just a concerto, it’s a workout piece for the orchestra.”  

Some of the recurring themes that appear when discussing Schuman with those who knew him include his personable nature and the abject humility with which he approached the music business. He seemed to be friends with everyone, and supported his friends loyally. (Indeed, one has only to inspect the contents of the display cases in the Juilliard library to find some candid shots with Leonard Bernstein or an affectionately inscribed photo from “Sam”—Barber, that is.)  

Slatkin spoke further of his relationship with Schuman: “He was not a selfish composer at all. He spent most of his time talking about all the other composers there were. It’s almost as if, to him, his music was there and you didn’t have to do much other than what was written. Rather, he encouraged you to really make sure that the younger generation got heard.”

“He was charming and witty,” Slatkin continued, “and I think one of the highlights of my life was that, when I’d gotten an honorary doctorate from [Juilliard], Schuman came back to the School just to present me with [it]. In turn, when Bill got the Kennedy Center Award, I was the one able to give the speech to honor him. For that, we had the Juilliard Orchestra play.” 

In his speech for that 1989 event, Slatkin recounted that Schuman came backstage after his first professional conducting engagement. “A lot of those musicians were Juilliard students. He said, ‘Those were my children.’ Then some 40 years later, here we were on the stage of the Kennedy Center, and I looked up and said, ‘If you thought your kids played well, just wait ’til you hear what your grandkids can do!’”  

“I hope this concert starts a path for literally reintroducing him,” said Slatkin. “It’s not that he’s fallen off the map, but you just don’t hear as much of this major composer as I think is warranted—as I think it is for many composers of that time. They seem to have gone slightly off the radar, perhaps because we listen to a lot of newer music. But it’s time to go back and look at Bill, Harris, Peter Mennin, [Roger] Sessions, and Diamond and Piston and all those composers from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s who shaped composers of today.”

At the very least, this concert should remind us that America, too, has its own symphonic tradition and that through this performance, we welcome one of its great masters home.

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