Having weathered a century of storms, the Longy School is marking its centennial in style

September 22, 2015 at 4:49 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Karen Zorn was appointed president of the Longy School at Bard College in 20xx.

Karen Zorn was appointed president of the Longy School at Bard College in 2007.

September is a busy time for Boston’s conservatories as students return to their studies. But this year is special for the Longy School of Music because the school is celebrating one hundred years of activity.

“It is kind of amazing to be the leader of an organization that has made it one hundred years in the arts, and in music,” said Longy president Karen Zorn. “It’s pretty amazing to be the head of an organization that has somehow managed to maintain the spirit of the founder, but not to allow it to become a museum.”

When walking around the school’s headquarters in Cambridge, there is a palpable sense of honoring the past. This weekend, the Longy School will kick off its centennial with SeptemberFest, a festival that will feature music that harkens back to 1915, the year of Longy’s founding.

Performances on Friday and Saturday will feature Longy ensembles, faculty, students, as well as special guests performing music that explores the connections between Paris and Boston as well as little-heard works by Charles Martin Loeffler, a composer who served on Longy’s faculty, and a Rapsodie for saxophone penned by the school’s founder, Georges Longy. In addition, the festival will include performances of music by Paul Brust, Arthur Foote, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, and Edward Burlingame Hill.

Concerts will also feature performances of popular songs from 1915 and a screening of Charlie Chapin’s The Tramp with live musical accompaniment. And on Sunday afternoon, Opera at Longy will present popular songs and Broadway classics at Harvard University’s Science Center plaza.

The Longy School of Music, in part, owes its existence to a disaster at sea.

In 1898, the French ocean liner SS La Bourgogne sank off the coast of Nova Scotia. On board were members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including Albert Weiss, principal oboist with the ensemble. Weiss and two of his colleagues died tragically along with more than 500 other people in the accident.

Business at the BSO went on, and the orchestra’s board of directors began the search for replacements. The quest for a new oboist led to the discovery of Georges Longy, a young virtuoso and recent graduate from the Paris Conservatoire. Longy wound up serving as principal oboist with the orchestra for three decades, yet his musical legacy would extend beyond the BSO and transform the musical landscape of Boston.

What Longy thought was missing from that German-style conservatory training in the city’s music schools was the kind of rigorous musicianship that he had received in Paris. In 1915 he founded his own music school to remedy that deficiency.

The basis for the new school was solfège, a system of ear training and dictation, and Dalcroze eurythmics, a practice of steps, gestures, and body movements to musical sound that, together, encourage young musicians to hear music with the eyes as well as the ears.

“[It] was about being able to open up a piece of music and actually understand what you were seeing and understand what those chord symbols meant,” said Zorn. “How do they function? How is that chord in Debussy different from the same chord in Beethoven? But it was also about being able to hear, like being a musician who could actually hear the music, not be looking at a printed page and understand what they were hearing.”

Today, the Longy School of Music maintains a similar training regimen established by Longy and his successor as director, his daughter Renée Longy-Miquelle.

“We still really believe that if a musician is going to be successful in life, they’re going to have to have serious musicianship skills. So theory and ear training, it’s not a walk in the park at Longy,” said Zorn.

“But what we see now today that we need layered on top of that, besides just excellent teaching outside of theory and ear-training, you’ve got to have teachers that inspire the students. You’ve got to have teachers that actually are experts in their own instruments and their own discipline, and we have that. [Georges Longy] would have said the same thing. That’s who he was.”

From the beginning, the Longy School hosted a wide variety of master teachers, including Nadia Boulanger, the pianist Lilly Dumont, violinist and chamber musician Wolfe Wolfinsohn, and Erwin Bodky, a specialist in early music. In addition, teh celebrated organist and Harvard alumnus E. Power Biggs, with help from Bodky, established an early music program at the school, which has thrived to this day.

The Longy School developed and expanded a preparatory program for young students and adult amateurs along with its conservatory with a moral purpose. Past director Victor Rosenbaum stated that, “We don’t want to emulate [the intensely competitive aspect] of the real world. We want to teach people to foster, support, help each other. We hope than when [the students] graduate they can go out into the world to make it a better place.”

Today the school’s mission has a distinctive social thrust.

“It [couldn’t] just be that we’re the smallest school that does what everybody else does,” said Zorn. “That has an appeal, you know that boutique hotel versus the Sheraton. And so [the board] really grappled with it, they changed the mission [in 2006 to] “Preparing musicians to make a difference in the world.””

“I think you’ve got to have musicians thinking about practical skills at the same time that they’re thinking about their artistic skills” Zorn added. “We try to really bake it in, so we do it specifically in a number of courses that everybody has to take. There are reasons we all do certain projects, and there are reasons why we have certain partnerships, and it really is attached to the mission.”

One integral manifestation of the mission is the Teaching Artist Program, where every student in the conservatory undergoes training on how to reach different audiences from diverse communities and musical experiences.

“A lot of our classes have outreach,” said Linda Chávez, a second-year master’s student at the conservatory. “So the class, basically, helps you make classical music relevant to different audiences. Your final project in that class is to go out in the community and put that into use.”

Many of the communities where Longy students teach are in the lower socio-economic sections of the Boston area. Chávez fulfills her duties in the program through a teaching assistantship at the Roland Hayes School of Music in Roxbury.

It’s work that she finds to be rewarding. “With my partner we played some piano four-hands [by Brahms] for the students,” she said. “We tied in nationalism and music and tied it into nationalism in music now. So after we played there was a moment of silence, which we weren’t expecting. It was great, you could really sort of sense that they related to the music, whereas, without that presentation I’m not sure they would have gotten it.”

But the most visible outgrowth of Longy’s mission is its partnership with El Sistema, the Venezuela-born community music programs that bring music education to young students in underserved areas.

Georges Longy served as Boston Symphony Orchestra principal oboe for nearly three decades.

Georges Longy served as Boston Symphony Orchestra principal oboe for nearly three decades.

The Longy School has a working relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, the most visible product of and advocate for El Sistema.

At Longy, conservatory students serve as mentors in the Side by Side Orchestra, an ensemble that pairs conservatory students with young musicians from El Sistema programs from around Massachusetts and the Los Angeles area. Past gala concerts given by the ensemble have included such luminary musicians as Frederica von Stade and Dudamel himself.

“We really believe in El Sistema, I think it’s worked in Venezuela, it’s working in Scotland, it’s working all over the world, it’s really taking hold here,” said Zorn. “[At Longy] we try to give [students] a really thoughtful, curated kind of experience with El Sistema, and—I’m a little bit of a missionary—but I really hope that a lot of them will discover that ‘my God, this is really meaningful work, this may be the thing for me.’”

The Side by Side program has sent Longy students into careers in music education in Boston and elsewhere, and Longy has continued to sculpt new means of training.

Zorn talked with representatives from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and together they proposed a radical idea: a Master of Arts in Teaching program, based in Los Angeles, where students would work hands-on with El Sistema children from some of the city’s most troubled areas.

“We had the idea of making it an immersion program, so those students actually live in the same community as the kids that they teach. They’re not living in the Hollywood hills, they’re not living in Santa Monica, and so [the teachers] are dealing with the same issues of crime, they’re surrounded by poverty,” Zorn said. “And the degree program happens right where the El Sistema program happens on the same floor of the same building. So [the students] take their graduate level course about identity, or something that’s more specific about teaching music, and they walk across the hall and they teach. And then they go back into their course and they say ‘how did that go?’ So it’s a teacher-as-researcher idea.”

“Our goal here is that Longy students should be able to walk into any room, anywhere, meet a group of people, and help them experience music in a meaningful way,” she said.

Lurking behind the scenes of the change in the Longy’s mission in 2006 was a troubling financial situation. When Zorn was interviewing for the job at Longy, the school was operating with a $7 million budget and a shortfall of $200,000. By the time Zorn arrived on the job in 2007 the deficit had ballooned to about $1 million.

The financial crisis of 2008 brought a decline in endowments and annual giving, and the board of directors had previously wanted the new president to seek out a partnership or mergers of some kind.

“That’s the wrong time to get married, when you’re desperate,” Zorn said. “We were not appealing, nor would we be able to maintain any level of control if we were desperate. So we did a turnaround, and we figured out what was actually working.”

The Longy School of Music took a hard look at its conservatory and redefined what it had to offer.

“We figured out that we were drawing our best students from small liberal arts colleges with good music departments,” said Zorn. “There was a kind of student who had a really good well-rounded education who was really drawn to Longy, who was probably not going to apply at Juilliard . . . but somewhere in the middle of that Longy looked really appealing . . .and that led us to Catholic schools and Jesuit schools, schools where there was some kind of social justice in the core mission. Quaker schools, Mennonite schools.”

With its new focus, the Longy School was in a better position to negotiate. Zorn met with Bard College president Leon Botstein in 2008, the two hit it off, and the Longy School ultimately merged with Bard 2012.

There were additional changes. Longy discontinued its preparatory program in 2013, a move that riled many and continues to be controversial.

But the focus on the conservatory has led to a rosier financial picture. Today, the renamed Longy School of Music at Bard College operates with a budget of about $9 million and is reaping success from its core mission.

“We’re not a wealthy organization,” Zorn said. “We’re an organization that is always having to be incredibly creative about where we put our resources.”

“Raising money for graduate students to become musicians isn’t always the first thing on people’s minds. And raising money for a small organization people think that you’re going to go away,” she added.

“[But] we’ve been around for a hundred years, we’ve made it through plenty of choppy water, we’re deeply committed to what Longy does,” Zorn said. “And I really feel like people are starting to catch on to what we do here.”

The Longy SeptemberFest will kick off with music by Fauré, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Loeffler, and Longy 8 p.m. Friday at Pickman Hall. longy.edu

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