Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 30, 1995

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

     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

     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

     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

     And he acknowledges that Peabody needs to make itself more
strongly involved with Baltimore, and especially its

     "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

     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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