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 beyond. 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 country. 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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