David Mermelstein’s January 6 New York Times article about the Colburn School profiles a new institution that should promise more than it seems to. It seeks to be a conservatory, train professional musicians, and does not seek to train music scholars. This is made explicit:
“We are a performance school,” said Robert Lipsett, who teaches violin and helped map the conservatory’s evolution. “If you want to be a musicologist, Colburn is not the place. It’s for musicians who are going to make their livelihood as performers, at one level or another.”
Fair enough, I suppose. The Colburn website (click on the “Conservatory of Music” link and choose “Faculty”) indicates that they have precisely one music historian for ninety-four students. There are more theorists, true, although I can’t say I recognize any of the academics’ names (and few enough of the performance faculty). Shouldn’t a Brave New Conservatory, near Disney Hall and emblematizing the hot, new, ever-revitalizing, multinational and multicultural Angeleno classical music scene have some uniqueness, some stated special reason for being, some reason that students should choose them over Mannes/Juilliard/Oberlin and so on? Taking Lipsett’s remark at face value, they’re talking like a trade school, and for all the practical realities involved in music performance we are still talking about art, often great art, and there is a hell of a lot more to address than fingerings, bowings, tonguings, and metronome markings. The—ah—Colburn Vocational Institute for Orchestral Infantry doesn’t do it, for me at least. “Musicians who are going to make their livelihood as performers” is a pretty ambitious statement, given the market realities. (I’m not going to get into Blair Tindall’s nauseating book here, but there is some distance between “I’m going to be a professional musician” and actually being a professional musician. I wonder if this is acknowledged in the Mission Statement of Colburn?)
Perhaps I’m being unfair. (If so, it would be the first time.) As one raised from early childhood in Los Angeles County, though, I would really like to think that a school with those kinds of cultural resources to connect with and draw upon would come up with a better training model than the one reflected in this article. I don’t mean a required pedagogy class, a Jazz appreesh class, and a history class, all of which would never be attended because the teachers would all be part-time and have no status; that’s standard conservatory faire. I do mean some approach other than the influential-teacher-anointing-promising-students model, because that one truly is OVER. I am not doing a Chicken Little about the Death Of Classical Music, but I think it is inarguable that the old institutions (Conservatory, Canon, Symphony Society etc.) are bloated and inefficient, and that they are either changing (usually far too slowly) or dying. It is not my place to draw up curriculum for a performance school that (full disclosure here) I probably never would have made it into, but the fact is there is no shortage of obedient executants, so something more is clearly wanted.
So for the new pure Conservatory in Los Angeles, I would look for a vision reflecting West-Coast Brave New Out-Of-The-Boxism rather than also-ran we’re-also-important us-tooism. Let’s all keep “Colburn School” in mind, just to see how often we hear about it, and why.