Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 22, 1995

Director Retires After 12 Years At Conservatory Helm

Pierce Made Peabody 'Shine Again'

By Mike Field / 
Staff Writer

     When Robert Pierce arrived in Baltimore in 1958, it seemed
as if the city was just awakening from a long slumber. An
ambitious new plan to renovate the city's waterfront was being
formulated, while uptown, in the Mount Royal area, the first buds
of a musical and artistic blossoming were beginning to set. It
was an auspicious time for a young french horn player fresh from
the New England Conservatory and a stint with the Boston Symphony
to take a position as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's
principal horn. 

     "It was an exciting time, a building time," said Pierce
recently, as he reminisced about his arrival in the city nearly
40 years ago. 

     Music lovers familiar with the world-class sound of the
current Baltimore Symphony would probably not recognize the
orchestra then resident in the Lyric Opera House, where the house
rarely sold out and concerts were often ignored by the general
community. In those days, a major musical event was a guest
appearance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

     "There were many ups and downs, and there were times when we
didn't know where the next paycheck was coming from," Pierce
said. "In fact, I couldn't even get a telephone when I listed the
symphony as my employer. It was only because my position carried
a joint appointment to the Peabody Institute faculty that I was
able to get a phone."

     Pierce's association with the Peabody was to prove an
especially fruitful one for both parties. Now, as he prepares to
retire after more than 12 years as director of the Peabody, it's
fair to say that if the institute helped Robert Pierce through
the tough times of his early days in Baltimore, then Robert
Pierce has more than repaid the obligation by steering the
Peabody through some tough times of its own.

     Take, for instance, finances. When Pierce took the mantle of
acting dean and associate director in 1981 (he was appointed on a
permanent basis two years later) the school, for all intents and
purposes, was bankrupt. Endowment stood at a paltry $1.4 million
and school officials were, in Pierce's words, "about six months
away from closing the doors for good." 

     Today, by contrast, the endowment is more that $40 million--
although still not enough, according to Pierce--and no one
anywhere talks about closing the institute. In fact, one real
concern is finding room for all the students who have swarmed to
the school in recent years, filling enrollment to capacity and

     Or there is the matter of the Peabody's standing as an
internationally recognized music conservatory. Established prior
to the Civil War, Peabody is the oldest such institute in the

     For decades, it was considered not only the premiere, but
also the pre-eminent conservatory in America. Nonetheless, its
reputation, based upon the quality of its faculty, the
accomplishment of its students and the innovations of its
program, had declined appreciably by the time the institute
reached financial rock bottom in the early 1980s. 

     Pierce took over the directorship charged with  reversing
the downward trend. "When I first took this position [then
university president] Steven Muller told me to restore the
institute and balance the budget," recalled Pierce. "Later, when
it became evident that the institution's finances were worse off
than had previously been imagined, he backed off on the second
demand. But there was never any question that my job was to help
make the Peabody shine again."

     Today, the Peabody is widely recognized as one of a
half-dozen institutions--including Curtis, Julliard, Eastman,
Oberlin and the New England Conservatory--that have the clout to
draw from a nationwide, and even worldwide, pool of applicants.
Not only has the number of student applicants increased
dramatically, but the quality of their playing has risen as well,
as indicated by the long list of honors, awards and international
contests Peabody students have won in recent years. 

     Pierce claims part of the reason he was able to guide the
institute back to renown was the superior quality of the faculty,
many of whom held on, even as times got tough. It was not a
question of starting from scratch, he noted, but more one of
building on the many strengths already in place. 

     "My principal role here was to restore and re-establish," he
said. "You have to keep in mind that conservatories by their very
nature are somewhat backward-looking. They were founded in Italy
during the 17th century as an outgrowth of the church's efforts
to do something for the children of the streets. They were
intended to conserve youth, by training them to sing.
Conservatories have, by tradition, been a place where the
musicians of the next generation train in what has already gone
before." It is perhaps this tendency to conserve that kept talent
at the institute, even when the money was running out.

     In the future, however, Pierce believes Peabody and other
conservatories will need go beyond the traditional concerns of
preservation to foster new forms of musical discovery. "The next
big push coming will be charting the future in music," he said.
"We need to emphasize the creative process itself and be more
forward looking. Advances in technology--and computers will
certainly have an impact--mean we have to stay tuned to the new.
We've made some beginnings. Faculty salaries are up, enrollment
and the quality of the students are up. It might be safe to say
we're about halfway there."   

     Now, however, it is time to hand the reins over to someone
else. Pierce will depart in June, to be followed by Robert
Sirota, former chairman of the Department of Music and Performing
Arts Professions at New York University. In the immediate future,
Pierce plans to spend time gardening and relaxing with his wife,
Judy. However, he keeps open the prospect of one day embarking on
a new career, his third after principal horn and conservatory
director. It is, he said, the perfect time to move on.

     "In the first half of the 80s we put almost all our
attention into bolstering the faculty and keeping up in areas of
student support," he said. "We accomplished a good bit of
physical improvements in the second half of the 80s, and at the
end of the decade concentrated on our financial underpinnings. I
think that's the right order. Now that we have built the house
and put it on a solid footing the really exciting time for
Peabody lies ahead. It's time for somebody else to take over and
move us into the future. I think the Peabody can be a major
player in music's future. We certainly haven't done all this work
to create a museum; as we move forward from here we'll be
charting the course of music's future."

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