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Not Your Typical School Productions: Music Students Play Major Role in NY Culture

Soldier's Tale photoNew York Times | By Anthony Tommasini

With the demise of the New York City Opera in 2013, New York was left with one major — very major — opera company. Still, for all its might, the Metropolitan Opera can’t do everything. There were growing calls from critics and many hopeful opera fans for adventurous smaller companies in the city, like Gotham Chamber Opera and Beth Morrison Projects, to step unto the breach and do more.

Yet there have long been other players on the field doing more, and not just in opera: the conservatories and music schools in the city, along with the music departments at universities where the performing arts really matter. In cities across the United States, these institutions are hotbeds of opera, symphonic concerts and chamber music.…

Naturally, the main way music schools serve the field is through the everyday activity of making music. To understand the range of what’s available, let me single out some exceptional recent events.…

In April, the Yale School of Music and the Yale School of Drama presented a co-production — first in New Haven, then at Zankel Hall — of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” with a playful new translation of the original French text by Liz Diamond, who also directed. The staging featured the Broadway actor Michael Cerveris (a Yale graduate), no less, as the narrator, along with charismatic dancers and actors from the university and an instrumental ensemble combining distinguished faculty members with gifted students. This event was part of the Yale in New York series.…

In a recent telephone interview, Robert Blocker, the dean of the Yale School of Music, echoed Mr. Polisi’s comments about the role of outreach. He is proud of Yale’s Music in Schools program, which brings instruction to children in New Haven. “We are doing research right now,” Mr. Blocker said, that will show “that children who are actively engaged in music have higher academic scores” and fewer “disciplinary infractions.”

Mr. Blocker seemed the right person to ask about the way residencies can work to the mutual benefit of artists and institutions. For 37 years, the eminent Tokyo String Quartet was in residence at the Yale School of Music. When that ensemble retired in 2013, Yale turned to the Brentano Quartet, an acclaimed ensemble that had held a residency at Princeton.

Even regular concertgoers may not fully understand how residencies work. As Mr. Blocker explained, the Brentano musicians receive full benefits, including retirement contributions, along with half-salary, because they are considered halftime faculty. The quartet maintains a busy concert schedule that can keep it on the road, sometimes for weeks. But members still spend roughly half of each semester at Yale, where they coach ensembles and teach master classes. Having such a residency can be a make-or-break opportunity for an ensemble, even a quartet as prominent as the Brentano. It provides a base income and stability, an artistic home.