May 18, 2016: Commencement Address

I want to begin by congratulating you and your families again on your graduation – you made it!  And now you get to go out into the world to take that next step – to use all your talents and skills you’ve acquired to make music and to make a difference.

This is my second graduation as dean, and I continue to be as honored to serve in this role as I was on my very first day.  It has been my privilege and joy to work with you during such an exciting time both at Peabody and for classical music writ large. In fact, there are so many things that happened at Peabody this past year that it’s challenging to decide what to highlight.

There were countless concerts and recitals that you participated in.  Symphonies that you played, operas that you sang; chamber works that you performed, and more.  You worked with an incredible faculty and had exposure to artists working at the highest level of the music world.  That included working with Marin Alsop, now director of graduate conducting at Peabody, recording a disc for Naxos in the first of a number of recordings by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra.  This year our students also had the chance to work with guest conductors of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, artists like Hannu Lintu and newly appointed BSO principal guest conductor, Markus Stenz.

You participated in the inaugural year of the Dean’s Symposiums.  These Symposiums are advancing an ongoing, open, and thoughtful dialogue about the future of classical music and the issues and trends facing our field.  Your thoughtful questions and the insights and learnings offered by notable guests like Claire Chase, Deborah Rutter, Norman Lebrecht and others, are helping us think differently about that future and how we both shape and respond to it.

You embraced the opportunity to create innovative approaches to learning and music through the Dean’s Incentive Grants, also new this year.

Many of you were part of expanding significantly Peabody’s footprint in music of our time with the launch of Now Hear This, our new contemporary chamber ensemble whose performances generated palpable excitement.  And you joined Peabody in

hosting New Music Gathering 2016 where more than 300 composers and performers from across the country gathered here to perform, conduct workshops and lectures, all the while sharing exciting new works with each other and Baltimore audiences.

You witnessed the launch of the Young Artist Development Series, a partnership between Peabody and El Paso Pro-Musica, in which two of your colleagues, violinist Nikita Borisevich and pianist Maggie Loukachkina spent a week-long residency in El Paso working as citizen-artists in what for them was a life-changing experience.

And it was only a few short weeks ago that many of you participated in the launch of citywide Peabody Pop-Ups where more than 40 students fanned out to 20 sites around Baltimore, from Penn Station to the Water Taxi at the inner harbor, and from Margaret Brent Elementary School to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in East Baltimore, and many places in between, all to surprise and delight through impromptu performances.

That’s the place I want to pause and talk with you, and reflect with you.  I want to go a little deeper and make it personal.  We have talked about developing and communicating with different audiences and connecting with communities.  Today, I want to ask you to think about that in a different way, and to set aside ingrained perceptions about what we value in musical performance.

For the first half of my career I had the opportunity to play in some pretty wonderful places, like the Kennedy Center or Goodman Hall in New York, to make recordings; to do radio broadcasts on classical stations that had live performance series, and to do all the things we as performers deem important and legitimate.  I tell you this because as great and as highly valuable as artistic experiences they were, and as satisfying to me as a performer, to have that optimal setting to make art – the perfect context, the reality is that when I look back on it, those may not have been the most important experiences.

When I think now about impact, I remember walking into a school in Lowell Massachusetts, in a small hall with a not very good piano and sharing a program with traditional Cambodian musicians, in which my ensemble, Aequalis, played a work by Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung for an audience of largely Cambodian immigrants, many of whom had lost most if not all of their families to the Khmer Rouge.  We had played the work, Spiral, over a hundred times in major halls.  Which do you think was among our most memorable performances?

Or playing a week of school programs in the dead of winter in upstate New York as part of a community residency that included underserved populations and seeing the look on kids’ faces as they watched and heard what a percussionist does, to see a pianist pluck the strings of a piano, and in many cases, to lay eyes on a cello for the first time.

While the circumstances in these kinds of performances were not always optimal, and could be challenging, in the end, I always felt that what had just transpired may have been among the most meaningful and impactful of all the things we as musicians do.    I share this with you in the hopes that you may learn to not make value judgments about performance, what is “important” and what is not.  There is no such thing.

Those experiences were every bit as important as playing at the Kennedy Center.  Perhaps more so. Yes, we all want to have our share of the wonderful performance opportunities and elevated artistic experiences under optimum conditions – I wish that for you as well.  But I also hope you have the kinds of experiences that have the capacity to change people’s lives – to open a door, to let a little light in.  Nikita and Maggie know what I’m talking about after their experiences in El Paso.  And those among you who participated in Creative Access or the Peabody Pop-Up concerts during your time here have experienced it too.

Please resist thinking of these as less legitimate or less “important” as performance.  Honor your audience wherever you find them, which will be in some remarkable and unexpected places.  You may even be frustrated in some way – the acoustics are not as good, the piano is not good.  Rise above it, and recognize that making art and music cannot be relegated to traditional spaces.  Go to where people are – meet them on their own terms.  Whether you believe this or not now, it will make you a better performer and musician with more heart than you ever dreamed possible.  That is the real joy of what we do.

Thank you so much, and I wish you the most happiness and joy possible in both your professional and personal lives.  I’m rooting for each and every one of you.  And again, congratulations on your accomplishments on this very special day.