Nivanthi Karunaratne ’20MM, on otherness and opportunity

By Nivanthi Karunaratne ’20MM

The South Asian Symphony Orchestra horn section, from left: Mohan Chetry, B.P. Vijayan, K. Saman Kularatne, and Nivanthi Karunaratne

Graduate school represents a major transition to adulthood. With a bachelor’s degree under their belt, young adults swap undergraduate procrastination for graduate proactivity—which, of course, is why I waited for the last possible minute to confirm my place at the Yale School of Music. No matter; I still became a proud Bulldog.

My excitement in beginning my master of music degree program came with a tinge of unease; feeling intimidated by my new peers was inevitable, having previously studied neuroscience. Fortunately, the YSM environment is as warm and welcoming as any.

Yet, being one of a sparse handful of brown musicians—here, I include those of Latinx or South Asian heritage—left me feeling inescapably “other.” Previously, this had been a source of pride. After high school, I spent two summers with the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute devoted to gathering the country’s most accomplished musicians between ages 16 and 19. If memory serves, I was the sole female of South Asian heritage—certainly among the brass, but likely the whole orchestra. Those summers, touring the world with preternaturally gifted young musicians, remain among my fondest. At that time, I laughed at the use of my image for publicity, fully cognizant of, yet reveling in, the reasons why. I traded jokes with peers yet failed to question why we numbered so few.

Unusually, the tokenism later proved advantageous.

Five years later, as I started at the YSM, Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao met with Carnegie Hall directors to share her visionary dream for cultural diplomacy: an orchestra comprised entirely of musicians from the eight South Asian nations—the South Asian Symphony Orchestra. Though numerous orchestras with skilled musicians exist throughout South Asia, many lack access to high-quality training and equipment. Ambassador Rao therefore needed leaders for certain wind sections. As one of the few South Asian alumni of the NYO-USA, the Carnegie Hall directors remembered me. They connected me with Ambassador Rao, who recruited me to perform as the SASO’s principal horn player in the ensemble’s inaugural concert. And so, on April 19, 2019, I landed in Mumbai, completing the first leg of a journey I had unknowingly begun in February 2014 upon my acceptance to the NYO-USA.

Optically, I fit in.

I do not insinuate that my Sri Lankan heritage is irrelevant; almost my entire family lives there. But there is no denying the challenge in making sense of my identity. In the United States, many assume I am foreign; in Sri Lanka, unconscious Americanisms instantly mark me as an outsider. Yet, in India, many believed I hailed from the southwestern state of Kerala, my first—and so far, only—time experiencing the assumption that I belong to a country.

While grappling with this, bombs disrupted Easter hymns in Sri Lanka, killing 259. The international response—a smattering of afterthoughts and prayers—starkly contrasted the outpouring following the Notre Dame fire, reigniting my sense of otherness. But, more important, the attacks demonstrated the urgency of the SASO’s mission to unify South Asia.

The SASO acknowledged the tragedy with a moment of silence. This profound instance of South Asian solidarity seemed at first a fleeting veneer of unity, as the very political challenges that the SASO sought to overcome continued manifesting within the orchestra. Conscious of tensions within and subject to intense scrutiny from our host country, the SASO left the presence of the single Pakistani-American musician quietly unpublicized, yet loudly celebrated the inclusion of musicians from Kashmir, the disputed territory between Pakistan and India. Musically, reluctance to match foreign section mates revealed stubborn patriotism. It seemed a pipe dream to surmount such extensive language and cultural barriers through musical collaboration.

Interestingly, the neutrality of my and others’ hyphenated identities may have helped dissolve such barriers. As an American, others in the ensemble could regard my Sri Lankan heritage with some distance during our tea breaks, allowing me to slip into, and subsequently merge, a number of cliques. With shared ancestry, Sri Lankans could adopt me as one of them; hearing my bold sound, Indian Navy men affectionately declared me a “one-man army” they could get behind; my horn itself, a novelty to Afghani school children, drew earnest curiosity and eventually camaraderie. Other musicians described similar experiences and the orchestra flourished, ultimately stunning the audience—which included Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu. He and the media praised the performance so lavishly that donations poured in, allowing the SASO to plan a second concert for October, for which they have invited me to return.

The SASO’s success was so dazzling in part because orchestras are heavily associated with western cultures, wealth, and therefore whiteness. Historically, in the United States and Europe, they are predominantly white institutions. This reality could perpetuate a perception that racial diversity and high standards are incompatible.

The SASO’s accomplishment illustrates that this perception is founded on bias.

If we are to honestly tout music as the universal human language—and keep orchestras relevant in the future—we need to continue investing more resources to inspire, excite, and recruit musicians of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. But, while acknowledging music’s unique ambassadorial capacity—at home and abroad—we cannot forget that diverse, competent musicians exist in the present.

Nivanthi Karunaratne is in the second year of the master of music degree program at the Yale School of Music. This is her opinion.

Published September 20, 2019
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YSM Alumni News | September 2018

Reena Esmail. Photo by Rachel Garcia

Sandbox Percussion, a group comprised of Jonathan Allen ’13MM ’14AD, Victor Caccese ’13MM, Ian Rosenbaum ’10MM ’11AD, and Terry Sweeney ’15MM, recently signed on with Blu Ocean Arts Music Management company.

Hornist Jocelyn Crawford Carr ’08MM was appointed third horn of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.

Composer Reena Esmail ’11MM ’14MMA ’18DMA has been elected to the executive board of New Music USA.

Pianists Juan Carlos Fernández-Nieto ’09MM ’10AD and Sun-A Park ’16AD ’17MMA participated in the Santander International Piano Competition in Spain. Park advanced to the semifinals, while Fernández-Nieto advanced to the finals and took home the Canon Audience Prize.

Guitarists Thomas Flippin ’07MM ’08AD and Christopher Mallett ’09MM, performing as Duo Noire, released an album called Night Triptych on New Focus Recordings. The album features several world-premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by women composers.

Keyboardist Stephen Gamboa ’16AD was named Music Director at Bethesda Lutheran Church in New Haven.

David Gier

David Gier ’85MM ’86MMA ’92DMA has been appointed Dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater & Dance. He was also named the Paul Boylan Collegiate Professor of Music.

Composers Trevor Gureckis ’07MM and Jay Wadley ’07MM ’08AD, founders of the artist collective Found Object Music Productions, have been nominated for an Emmy Award for their work on the sixth season of HBO’s VICE.

Conductor Ng Tian Hui ’10MM was named the conductor of the Pioneer Valley Symphony in Greenfield, Mass.

Pianist Wenbin Jin ’13MM ’15AD was awarded the Liszt Ferenc Society’s International Grand Prix du Disque for his Naxos recording of Liszt’s Grandes études, S. 137. An award ceremony will take place on Liszt’s birthday, October 24, in Budapest.

Pianist Fantee Jones ’18MMA, violinist Sissi Yuqing Zhang MMA, and violinist Kyung Min Lee ’17MM toured Asia this past summer as Ensemble Trois.

Clarinetist Emil Khudyev ’11MM received tenure at the Seattle Symphony & Opera Players’ Organization in June.

Soprano Jihee Kim ’11AD received third prize at the Riccardo Zandonai Competition this summer at the Musica Riva Festival in Italy.

Conductor Jahja Ling ’80MMA ’85DMA is the subject of an exhibition at the Bonita Museum and Cultural Center in California. Running through the end of September, the exhibition charts the highlights of Maestro Ling’s career and includes interactive elements to introduce visitors to the world of orchestral conducting.

Alasdair Neale. Photo by Lucy Gellman

Conductor Alasdair Neale ’85MM ’86MMA has been named Music Director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, beginning in the 2019-2020 season.

Composer Tawnie Olson ’99MM ’00AD was awarded the 2018 Barlow Prize from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition and will compose a new major work for SATB choir. The Barlow Endowment, based at Brigham Young University, also awarded composer Andy Akiho ’11MM a grant to compose a work for Sandbox Percussion.

Hilary Purrington ’17MMA is one of six composers whose work was played, workshopped, and recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Assistant Conductor Kensho Watanabe ’09BS ’10MM.

Pianists Gabriele Strata ’19MM, Wenting Shi ’19MMA, and Yannick van de Velde ’20MMA took home awards from the Virtuoso & Belcanto Festival in Lucca, Italy. In the piano competition, Strata won first prize and Shi won third prize. Shi and van de Velde won first prize in the chamber music competition for their piano four-hands performance of The Rite of Spring.


Published September 7, 2018
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YSM Alumni News | July 2018

Samuel Adams

Composer Samuel Adams ’10MM had a new chamber concerto premiered by violinist Karen Gomyo and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His Movements (for us and them) will be performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on tours of Australia and the United States this summer.

Guitarist Trevor Babb ’12MM ’14MMA was appointed adjunct artist in guitar at Vassar College and will begin that role in the fall.

Hornist Luke Baker ’18MM, bassoonist Matthew Gregoire ’17MM, and double bassist Kaden Henderson ’17MM ’18MMA will join The Orchestra Now at the beginning of the 2018-2019 season.

Composer, pianist, and organist Calvin Bowman ’99MMA ’05DMA was signed to Decca/Universal Music Australia, which will release a recording of his songs called Real and Right and True in July.

Sarah Boxmeyer ’16MM won the position of associate principal/third horn of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. Boxmeyer played with the orchestra for much of the 2017-2018 season and will begin her first full season in September.

Conductor John Concklin ’08MM received a one-year appointment as associate professor of conducting at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University.

Kevin Dombrowski ’14MM won the position of second trombonist of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and will begin playing with the orchestra in October.

Percussionist Timothy Feeney ’01MM ’02MMA ’07DMA was appointed to a full-time faculty position as a percussion artist at the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts.

Timothy Gocklin ’14MM ’15AD was appointed artist-in-residence in oboe at the University of Northern Colorado.

Romie de Guise-Langlois

Romie de Guise-Langlois ’06MM ’07AD was appointed assistant professor of clarinet at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Violinist Ethan Hoppe ’16MM ’18MMA will join the New World Symphony for the 2018-2019 season.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin ’78BA ’79MM is serving as director of classical guitar at the Aspen Music Festival this summer, teaching, giving master classes, and performing.

Organist Paul Jacobs ’02MM AD recently joined the Philadelphia Orchestra on its tour of Europe and Israel. Jacobs’ recent solo engagements also include performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and The Cleveland Orchestra.

Conductor Farkhad Khudyev ’10MM, the third prize-winner at the eighth annual Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in 2017, received a 2018 Solti Foundation Career Assistance Award.

Pianist Henry Kramer ’13AD ’19DMA was named the L. Rexford Whiddon Distinguished Chair in Piano at the Joyce and Henry Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University.

Violinist Cheuk Yin Luu ’18MM won a position in the first violin section of the Buffalo Philharmonic and will begin playing with the orchestra in September.

Missy Mazzoli ’06MM was named the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new Mead Composer-in-Residence. Music Director Riccardo Muti appointed Mazzoli to a two-year term.

Bassoonist Marissa Olegario ’15MM was appointed assistant professor of music at the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music for the 2018-2019 academic year. Olegario will teach bassoon and perform in the Arizona Wind Quintet, a faculty ensemble.

Choral conductor Sarah Paquet ’16MM was appointed assistant director of choral activities and lecturer in music in the Smith College Music Department and will begin in the fall.

Trombonist Matthew Russo ’12MM joined the S. E. Shires Company’s artist roster.

Kate Sheeran

Hornist Kate Sheeran ’04MM was named executive director of the Kaufman Music Center, effective in August 2018. Sheeran previously served as provost and dean at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

James Austin Smith ’08MM joined the faculty at Stony Brook University as interim visiting artist-in-residence of oboe.

Flutist Leo Sussman ’18MM will join Ensemble Connect in September.

Guitarist An T. Tran ’16MM was awarded first prize at the University of Rhode Island’s Rising Stars Competition.

Pianist Yevgeny Yontov ’14MM ’20DMA was appointed to a one-year assistant professorship as instructor of piano in the College of Musical Arts at Bowling Green State University. Yontov will begin in mid-August and will teach piano and collaborative piano and coach chamber music.

Pianist Joon Yoon ’16MM was awarded the Guildhall School’s (London) Gold Medal, the school’s most prestigious prize for outstanding soloists.

Published July 9, 2018
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Achievements celebrated at annual Honors Dinner

Carol Colburn Grigor, recipient of the Samuel Simons Sanford Award

Left to right: Benjamin Polak, Peter Salovey, Samuel Simons Sanford Award winner Carol Colburn Grigor, and Robert Blocker

The Yale School of Music held its annual Honors Dinner on Sunday, May 7, welcoming students and alumni, faculty and staff, and distinguished guests to the Yale Commons for an evening of celebration. After thanking recently retired staff members for their service and acknowledging the University officers who were in attendance, YSM Dean Robert Blocker presented Carol Colburn Grigor ’69MMA CBE with the School’s highest honor, the Samuel Simons Sanford Award. Grigor, Blocker, said, “is one of America’s most generous … most thoughtful philanthropists.” Composer and former Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills congratulated Grigor via video.

Willie Ruff, recipient of the Nathan Hale Award

Left to right: Benjamin Polak, Peter Salovey, Nathan Hale Award recipient Willie Ruff, and Robert Blocker

Dean Blocker, with University President Peter Salovey and Yale Provost Benjamin Polak at his side, presented longtime YSM professor Willie Ruff ’53BM ’54MM, who will retire at the end of the semester, with the University’s prestigious Nathan Hale Award. “He’s changed all our lives,” Blocker said, before attendees were shown a video tribute to Ruff’s life and work. In a nod to the man who indirectly inspired him decades ago to study at YSM, Ruff said, “I thank, most of all, Charlie Parker.” The jazz office in the Yale School of Music’s Adams Center for Musical Arts was recently named in Ruff’s honor.

Left to right: Benjamin Polak, Peter Salovey, Ian Mininberg Distinguished Service Award winner Warren Lee, and Robert Blocker

Blocker presented the Ian Mininberg Distinguished Service Award to pianist Warren Lee ’00MM and the Cultural Leadership Citation to retiring Yale Collection of Musical Instruments curator William Nicholas Renouf ’71MMA. The Collection’s director, William Purvis, accepted the Citation on behalf of Renouf, who was unable to attend the Honors Dinner. Before presenting student prizes, Blocker referenced an impressive number of awards and successes earned and realized this year by students, faculty, and staff. He recognized longtime YSM faculty pianist Peter Frankl, who plans to retire in the fall, for his dedication to the School community.

At the end of the evening, Blocker told the students in attendance, “Claim the future. It belongs to you. You will make us better.” What follows is a list of the student prizes awarded during YSM’s 2017 Honors Dinner. MORE

Published May 9, 2017
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Inside YSM: Matthew Gray ’17MMA, horn

Matthew Gray

Meet horn player Matt Gray ’17MMA, who spoke with us recently about his experiences studying with Prof. William Purvis.

“The dynamic in the YSM horn studio is similar to that of a big family,” Matt said. “Each member of the family has strengths and weaknesses, but together we are a capable and formidable group. This sense of family and camaraderie comes directly from Prof. Purvis.

“Prof. Purvis has a style of teaching that focuses directly on the steps his students should take to assess and improve their own playing while also motivating and encouraging his students to pursue their own strengths to the fullest degree.”

While at YSM, Matt has worked in the Concert Office and has developed an interest in the administrative side of the field. MORE

Published May 5, 2017
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Willie Ruff retires having given “conservatory without walls” a home at Yale

By Lucile Bruce

Willie Ruff

Willie Ruff was born in 1931 in Sheffield, Alabama, a rural town on the south side of the Tennessee River. As a child, he showed an aptitude for music and immersed himself in the musical resources of his community. A neighborhood boy shared his drum set with young Willie and they became lifelong friends. The pianist at church became his piano teacher. But the best music he heard was the drumming in the African Pentecostal church half a block from his house. “We would sit on the ground outside the church and listen to the people playing those drums,” Ruff recalled. “It was the most exciting, the most moving music. I heard them in my sleep.”

Across the river from Sheffield stands Florence, the hometown of W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues.” Handy visited Ruff ’s elementary school classroom, played for the children, and accompanied their singing. “W.C. Handy was a big presence in my world,” Ruff recounted. “When I saw him on stage in my school, talking about the importance of our musical heritage, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I think I have.” MORE

Published May 1, 2017
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Winners of 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition Announced

The 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition took place on Saturday, April 8. This year’s competition yielded three winners: violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM, performing Niccolo Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola; violinist Laura Park ’18MM, performing William Walton’s Violin Concerto; and percussion duo Georgi Videnov ’17MMA and Sam Um ’17MM, performing Martin Bresnick’s Grace, concerto in three movements for two marimbas and orchestra.

As winners, these Yale School of Music students will perform with the Yale Philharmonia during the 2017-18 season. The judges noted that they were very impressed with the high level of talent that was demonstrated by all performers. Violinist Rachel Ostler ’18MMA was selected as an alternate, and honorable mentions were given to hornist Scott Leger ’18MM, mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire ’17MM, and violinist Diomedes Saraza Jr ’17MMA.

The judges were flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, who serves on the faculties of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music, Bard College Conservatory of Music, and Manhattan School of Music, Jonathan Yates, music director of the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, and cellist Robert Martin, the director of faculty and a professor at the Bard Conservatory of Music.

Published April 11, 2017
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YSM musicians featured in Essex Winter Series program


YSM faculty hornist William Purvis

The Yale School of Music will be well-represented when the Essex Winter Series kicks off its 40th season on Sunday, Jan. 8. Along with YSM faculty hornist William Purvis, the series’ 2017 Fenton Brown Emerging Artists — percussionist Sam Um ’17MM, trumpet players Aaron Plourde ’17MMA and Nozomi Imamura ’17MM, trombonist Matthew Russo ’12MM, and tubist Joseph Guimaraes ’18MM — will perform an arrangement of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Plourde, Purvis, and Russo will also perform as a trio on the program, which features an impressive roster of musicians and a diverse collection of works.

The mission of EWS is “to bring the finest music, in live performance, to the Connecticut River Valley and Shoreline Region during the winter months and to cultivate its appreciation to the widest audience,” according the the series’ website. The Emerging Artists program offers young, up-and-coming musicians the opportunity to perform in schools and retirement homes in the Connecticut River Valley and along the shoreline. MORE

Published January 7, 2017
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Sarah Ford ’16 MM joins Colorado Springs Philharmonic as principal horn


Sarah Ford

Sarah Ford ’16 MM has been appointed principal horn of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic; her appointment will begin in fall, 2016. The Colorado Springs Philharmonic is led by Josep Caballé-Domenech who succeeded Lawrence Leighton Smith, the former music director of Yale Philharmonia. Smith was also the first music director of Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

Originally from Guilford, CT, Sarah earned her Bachelors of Music degree from Mason Gross School of the Arts – Rutgers University, where she studied with Douglas Lundeen, Denise Tryon, Eric Reed, and Jerry Peel. Her summers have been spent in programs such as the NSO Summer Music Institute, the Maine Chamber Music Seminar, the Pierre Monteux School, the National Music Festival, and Kendall Betts Horn Camp. In May 2016, Sarah graduated with her Master of Music degree from the Yale School of Music, where she studied with William Purvis.

Published June 20, 2016
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[ students & alumni ]

Jeb Wallace appointed Assistant Professor of Horn at Wichita State University

jeb wallaceJeb Wallace ’05 AD has been appointed to a joint position as principal horn with the Wichita Symphony and Assistant Professor of Horn at the Wichita State University School of Music. In addition to his orchestral and teaching duties, Wallace will perform with the Lieurance Woodwind Quintet and Wichita Brass Quintet, both faculty ensembles at WSU.

Previously, Wallace served as Associate Professor of Horn and Brass Area Coordinator at Utah Valley University. He has performed throughout the country including with numerous ensembles including the Utah Symphony, American Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, Richmond Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Boise Philharmonic, Erie Philharmonic, New Haven Symphony, and Dallas Wind Symphony among others.



Published May 3, 2016
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