On May 22, the School of Music conferred degrees on graduating students in a ceremony that would be Robert Blocker’s last as Dean. Blocker, who will retire on August 31 after 28 years in the position, presented special prizes to two returning student and one graduating student. The Harriet Gibbs Fox Memorial Prize, which is awarded to a student who achieved the highest grade-point average during their first year, went to double-bassist Chelsea Strayer ’24MM. The Horatio Parker Memorial Prize, which is awarded to a returning student who is selected by the faculty as best fulfilling Dean Parker’s lofty musical ideals, was given to Arsenii Gusev ’24MM. And the Dean’s Prize, the School’s highest student-excellence award, went to graduating tubist Bridget Conley ’23MM.
Esteemed music critic and YSM alum Anthony Tommasini ’70BA ’72MM returned to Yale to receive the School’s most prestigious honor, the Samuel Simons Sanford Medal for distinguished service to music. Tommasini served for 21 years as Chief Classical Music Critic at The New York Times before retiring in 2021. Tommasini studied piano with Donald Currier at YSM, from which he graduated with a master-of-music-degree in 1972, and earned a doctor-of-musical-arts degree from Boston University in 1982. “Anthony Tommasini’s work has challenged the field to broaden its horizons and in so doing helped audiences demystify classical music, embrace new music, and rethink the old,” Blocker said, reading a framed citation he presented to Tommasini. “I’m honored I’m humbled, and I’m very surprised,” Tommasini said, sharing that it was “intimidating and empowering to study here,” and offering to students and faculty, “What I do as a critic is not as hard or nearly as essential as what you do.”
Before awarding diplomas to graduating students whose names were read by Deputy Dean Melvin Chen, Blocker delivered his charge to the YSM Class of 2023. Titled “From the Heart, May it Go to the Heart,” after the inscription Beethoven wrote on the score to his Missa Solemnis, which was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, Blocker’s speech sought to “explore … the quest for authenticity that confronts us.”
“Who are you?” Blocker asked, explaining, “Who are you—the person with thoughts, feelings, ideas. I know you are a violinist, harpist, singer, composer—I know what you do. … Do you have the courage to reach into the vault of your soul, to go where no one else has ever been or will be, to see and to accept yourself for what you actually are?” Blocker pointed to Beethoven, saying, “What we do know is that in Beethoven’s inch of space and yard of time on earth, his authentic and vulnerable voice proclaims the triumph of hope over despair.” Hope has been a focus of Blocker’s time at Yale, specifically the hope that music can bring to those it reaches. “With your distinctive musical voice,” he urged graduates, “create and re-create profound utterances that transform lives and help heal the world. You have changed my life and you have changed the lives of family and friends.”
Veering from his written remarks, Blocker had a few more parting words for graduating and returning students: “I want to thank all of you for the music you made. I can honestly tell you that it was the best music-making and the highest level of music making in my 28 years as Dean.”
As is tradition—one that Blocker started when he arrived at the School in 1995—the students, faculty, staff, family, and friends gathered in Morse Recital Hall closed Commencement 2023 by singing An die Musik with Chen at the piano.