Page 3 Feature: Robert Sirota Mixes Philosophy With Pragmatism Mike Giuliano ---------------------------- Special to The Gazette When the new director of the Peabody Institute, Robert Sirota, says that "there are so many voices" within the Peabody community, he doesn't just mean the bellowing basses and the high-pitched sopranos. As he settles into his job, he spends much of his time simply listening to what the administrators, faculty, students and alumni have to say about the needs of the venerable music conservatory. "I learned a long time ago that as a general you can't lead a charge unless you have an army behind you," Sirota says in the measured, professorial tone of a composer who arranges his words as carefully as the notes in a musical score. "My metaphor doesn't work completely, because here we have an academic community which has a multiplicity of perspectives as to what Peabody is and what it should be. I'm not so much interested in honing it down to a single paragraph as I am in developing that depth and energy." His challenge at Peabody is to channel all that energy as he takes the music school founded in 1857 into the 21st century. Rethinking its mission involves much of his time, but that sort of conceptual work is more than balanced by the more mundane task of raising money for an institution that until recently had precious little of it. Although its affiliation with Hopkins in 1977 gave Peabody a renewed lease on life, Peabody's tiny endowment made for a rather precarious existence for much of the following decade. Sirota's predecessor, Robert Pierce, was able to turn the school's financial fortunes around, increasing its endowment from $2 million to $25 million. Sirota is building on that base, buoyed in recent weeks by $2 million that is part of Michael Bloomberg's $55 million gift to Hopkins. Sirota hopes that Bloomberg's support will keep the momentum going. "We have enough money to pay our monthly bills, but not the money to do the special things we'd like to do," Sirota explains. "By mid-1996, we plan to have an endowment of $40 million. But in order to do all the things I'd like to see done, we have to double it to $80 million." His plans involve expanding the course offerings and technological capabilities to make Peabody students prepared for the musical life of the next century, and also making Peabody a more integral part of both Hopkins and Baltimore. "As I get older, I grow more and more interested in what is fundamental about music and the arts," says a man who, at 45, qualifies as one of the youngest people ever to lead Peabody. "I spent a lot of time in the practice room learning how to play the piano proficiently and then spent time at my desk learning the craft of composition. Now in middle age I want to learn why I do the things I do and not just how I do them. "I would like to also ask questions as to what purpose we do these things. In addition to the stylistic issue, it has to do with expanding our understanding of what a conservatory is in terms of the role of art in our culture. It's as much a metaphysical question as a practical question. "What is the role of music in guiding a society at a time when our society could use guidance? That fits into the question of how we fit in the city of Baltimore and how that relationship to our surroundings relates to the national health of arts institutions. For me, it's all these things." If Robert Sirota clearly relishes an opportunity to get metaphysical, he's also straightforward when it comes to the practical implications of his goals. After all, he has struck a balance in his own life between being a composer and being an administrator, between waxing philosophic and leading an orchestral army into the field. He feels Peabody must treasure the traditional means of teaching Western classical music, but also, in effect, expand its academic repertoire. "In practical terms, it means we could examine the relevance of what we teach to our surroundings. There is, of course, the great canon of Western music, which is our life blood at a place like this, but we're not simply responsible for preserving that canon, but for advancing it. We should promote the works of new composers, teach new techniques and new media, including what's going on with computers and electronics. "We should also be more responsive to indigenous music_the music around us and, perhaps, in our case, more responsive to music of other world cultures. I say 'perhaps' because [at Peabody] there is not that same level of expertise there as with Western music. These are all worthy goals for a newly defined conservatory." One specific area where he'd like to see growth is in jazz. "We have a very small jazz area, and I'd like to see it expanded. I don't think we can compete with music schools with large jazz programs, or should try, but there is still room for growth." In general, he wants to prepare Peabody students for the musical jobs that await them in the real world. Not every Peabody grad will play, or play exclusively, in a symphony orchestra. "Students should be trained to play in an orchestra, but they'll also find themselves playing in pit shows [Broadway style orchestras]. They'll teach. Some will be in charge of arts organizations. They're going to be asked to play in recording sessions in a variety of styles and media, and we need to provide these things so that they'll be prepared for the outside musical world." More than anything, he wants to emphasize that many Peabody graduates--even those who develop major professional careers-- will find teaching an important part of their lives. And he feels the school needs to better train them as teachers. "Some of our students will go out and go from concert hall to concert hall. We're a major conservatory and we produce such talented students. Ironically, many of these people also become great teachers. Many of our students will go on to teach music, and we need to do more to teach people how to teach." He cites the year of study he once spent with Nadia Boulanger, the legendary piano teacher in Paris, and how "she gave us the sense of teaching as one of the highest callings." Besides developing such programs at Peabody, he wants to further enhance its institutional tie to Hopkins. "I would like to see a more clarified relationship between Johns Hopkins and Peabody. Hopkins is a vast academic resource, but because of issues of scheduling and budgeting, Peabody students can't always take advantage of what Johns Hopkins has to offer." And he acknowledges that Peabody needs to make itself more strongly involved with Baltimore, and especially its schoolchildren. "This is a long-term process that's real and substantial that people feel they want and need. Peabody has to create a more welcoming face to the city of Baltimore. We've been interested in the decisions dealing with our own survival, and now that our survival is assured we can turn more of our attention to enriching the community." Robert Sirota approaches these challenges with solid credentials behind him. Formerly chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts at New York University, he has devoted his life to music. He was educated at Oberlin Conservatory and Harvard University, receiving a doctorate in composition from the latter. Prior to his position at NYU, he headed the Boston University School of Music and also oversaw the summertime Tanglewood Institute. "I have a creative life separate from the institution," he says of his musical identity. "I expect to contribute creatively to the institution. I expect to do some teaching. I'd like to work with composition students and would like to conduct new music in a substantial way." The musicality extends to other family members. His wife, Victoria Ressmeyer Sirota, is an organist and also an ordained Episcopal priest. Their 19-year-old son, Jonah, is a sophomore viola major at Rice University, and their 12-year-old daughter, Nadia, is a student at Park School already studying violin and composition. Having left Manhattan behind them, they have moved into a high-rise apartment building on University Parkway near the Homewood campus that offers at least a semblance of an urbane New York lifestyle. "Baltimore is unique in both its congeniality and its insularity. It tends to turn more inwardly than outwardly. It's more concerned with its day-to-day workings than how it's perceived by the outside world. It's a very comfortable city."
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