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Exclusive Interview with Susan Wadsworth: March 28, 2011

Susan Wadsworth
Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

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On Thursday, March 24, 2011, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with Susan Wadsworth, Founder and Executive Director of Young Concert Artists (YCA), the highly acclaimed non-profit organization dedicated to discovering and promoting the careers of young classical musicians, that this year is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. YCA is the New York-based organization responsible for introducing such acclaimed classical artists as Richard Goode, Pinchas Zukerman, Emmanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, Fred Sherry, Dawn Upshaw, and hundreds of others musicians who today enliven classical music all over the world. In this rich and insightful interview, Ms. Wadsworth discusses the recent anniversary-related events – a Gala Concert at the Rose Auditorium on Tuesday, March 29 and the 12-hour “marathon” concert held on February 19, which featured 100 YCA artists from all 50 years! In addition, Ms. Wadsworth offers fascinating details on the origins of YCA in 1961, her own musical background that led to its founding, her recollection of the YCA association with Classical Archives founder Pierre Schwob, her thoughts on the future of classical music, and much more. Our feature also includes a recent recording of the Brandenburg Concertos featuring several YCA alums, a 2-hour Playlist featuring music by YCA artists, and a collection of YCA-related videos. Don’t miss this terrific interview with a true hero in classical music promotion!

“We conduct auditions, not competitions, because I was only interested in working with artists based on how talented they are. The whole notion of a competition has always been a bit ridiculous to me; every performer has something unique to say, and YCA wants to promote those artists who have an ability to say something truly special.”
– Susan Wadsworth, Founder and Executive Director of YCA

Nolan Gasser: Susan Wadsworth, welcome to Classical Archives. Let us first congratulate you on a very impressive achievement: celebrating this year the 50th Anniversary of Young Concert Artists.

Susan Wadsworth: Thank you very much.

NG: YCA has always had a busy schedule, with the various concerts you promote featuring the talented young artists who win the auditions held each year; but 2011 is particularly busy given the anniversary, and I'd love to focus on a couple of special events this year - starting with the upcoming concert on March 29: the 50th Anniversary Gala Concert at the Rose Auditorium at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It's a fascinating program, under the direction of Pinchas Zukerman and the Orchestra of St. Luke, and you manage to feature no less than 17 YCA artists, ranging in their initiation years from 1961 to 2009, in 5 works - by Bach [Brandenburg Concerto No.5, BWV1050, Concerto in D- for 2 Violins, BWV1043], Mozart [La Clemenzo di Tito (excerpts), Concerto in Eb for 2 Pianos, K.365] and Louis Maurer [Concertante in A- for 4 Violins]. Have rehearsals yet begun for this program?

SW: Actually, the rehearsals don't start until next Monday, but I assume that each artist is practicing their part on their own; since they don't all live in New York City, and most of them have very busy schedules, the rehearsals will be on Monday, as well as on Tuesday morning, the day of the concert.

And yes, the program features a mix of alums and artists on our current roster: [violinists] Chee-Yun [1989], Tim Fain [1999], Karen Gomyo [1997], Daniel Phillips [1976], [flutist] Paula Robison [1961], [pianists] Anne-Marie McDermott [1983], Vassily Primakov [2002], Vassilis Varvaresos [1998], and [harpsichordist] Anthony Newman [1968] are alumni; while [mezzo-soprano] Jennifer Johnson [2009], [violinists] Caroline Goulding [2009], Bella Hristova [2008], [pianists] Ran Dank [2008], Gleb Ivanov [2005], and Chu-Fang Huang [2006] - who was just awarded the Avery Fisher career grant - are on the current roster.

NG: This is certainly part of what makes YCA so unique - being this wonderful assembly of talent from various generations, like one big family.

SW: Absolutely, it is.

NG: Again, this program is so interesting in that you make use of so many YCA artists in a relatively small program - for example, you include the Mozart Concerto for 2 Pianos, where you have six soloists, two for each movement.

SW: Yes, that's right - it's pretty funny.

NG: So, did you design this program yourself?

SW: Yes, in fact I did: I picked pieces that could allow as many soloists to shine as possible. I knew the Mozart and Bach concertos, of course, but the Maurer will be a surprise to me; it was suggested to me by Jorge Mester - who was director of the Aspen Festival for over 20 years [and is currently its conductor laureate]; he has used this piece for his own gala occasions that feature four violinists, and said it would be a great ending to our program. I mentioned the piece to Pinchas Zukerman [1966], and he said, "Sure". So I'm waiting to hear what this piece sounds like.

NG: Right, I don't even see the piece available on recording; and there aren't very many works written for four violins - outside of Vivaldi. It should be a wonderful program - though as we discussed earlier, it's a shame that the concert won't be recorded, which I know can be a complicated process.

SW: It's not so complicated - if you can write a very big check [laughs]; and that we unfortunately can't do. So, yes, it's really a big shame that the concert won't be professionally recorded; there will be an archival recording - but I think they make the quality such that you wouldn't want to use it, which we're not supposed to anyway.

NG: Indeed, there are always stipulations regarding archival recordings. Well, at least it will be a real treat for all those in attendance on Tuesday night.

Let's now turn to the other big event you held recently, on February 19 - namely, a 12-hour Marathon Concert at Symphony Space. This was touted as featuring 100 YCA artists from all 50 years - including such luminaries as [pianists] Emanuel Ax, Christopher O'Riley, [cellist] Fred Sherry, [flutist] Paula Robison, and many others. I see that the program was divided into four large sections, each with a distinguished host [Eugenia Zukerman (1970), Jeremy Denk (1997), Mary Beth Peil (1964), and Christopher O'Riley (1981)] and where players from the various generations intermingled in repertoire ranging from Bach to Chopin to Debussy to Ligeti, and beyond. Even more than the upcoming Gala Concert, this must have been a herculean task to coordinate; were you again personally involved in designing the program, and all of its participants?

SW: Yes I did design the whole program; for example, I wanted to include as many of the most gorgeous multiple-artists chamber pieces that I could: the Schumann Piano Quintet [Op.44], the Mendelssohn Octet [Op.20], the Schubert Trout Quintet [D.667], and the Mozart Viola Quintet in D [K.526], among others. In addition, for many pieces, I put together performers who had never before met each other - it was very fun.

NG: I can imagine. There also was a selection of wonderful solo pieces that aren't heard very often, like Stravinsky's 3 Pieces for Solo Clarinet and Debussy's Syrinx, for solo flute. It really seems to have been a wonderful mix of styles and timbres.

SW: It was; a lot of people arrived thinking they would stay for two hours, but ended up staying for many hours - some even hanging in the whole day and night! It was very exciting; for me it was a thrill of a lifetime - I just was in heaven for twelve straight hours!

NG: Yes, I was thinking that it must have been quite a walk down memory lane for you - seeing all of your "children" grown up to one degree or another.

SW: Grown up - and blooming! It was such fun to see the players interacting with one another, and just "wowing" one another. And again, we grouped artists who had never played together before.

For example, during our "Bach Hour", we included, from our current roster, marimbist Pius Cheung [2008], who had arranged the Bach Keyboard Concerto in D minor [BWV1052] for marimba and strings - and had him joined by veteran violinists Yoko Matsuda [1962], and Heiichiro Ohyama [1974], neither of whom had ever met Pius.

Another example was placing flutist Paula Robison with Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen [2000] in the Jolivet's Chant de Linos - which made for one of the most spectacular performances I think this piece has ever had.

And then it was fun to put together our "Chopin Hour" with four completely different pianists - Gleb Ivanov, Wendy Chen [1997], Sergei Edelmann [1979], and Edward Auer [1964]; a friend later wrote to say that listening to that hour was like being in a truffle store, and how each one was a great - and completely different - Chopin artist.

We also had violinist Dimitri Berlinsky [1989] join with Sergei Edelmann in two movements from Prokofiev's Violin Sonata [No.2 in D, Op.94bis]; they are both from Moscow originally, and really wanted to play together - and just loved it.

For our performance of Bartók's Contrasts [for violin, clarinet, and piano], we joined two performers - violinist Rolf Schulte [1971] and pianist Ursula Oppens [1968], who had formed their own new music group called Speculum musicae - with a clarinetist on our current roster, Jose Franch-Ballester [2004]; they didn't have a clue who Jose was, having never heard of him; but they were just thrilled playing with him - and he was beyond the moon playing with them.

NG: I'm sure he was; indeed, for these young musicians, it's an opportunity of a lifetime to play with such veteran performers.

SW: Absolutely. Jose was so thrilled to play with them; I've heard him play the piece before, but I never heard him play it so magnificently!

Then, for the last work on the program, the Mendelssohn Octet, we had one of the most mixed groups of all: the group included violinists Elina Vähälä [1999], who came in from Finland, Karen Gomyo, Donald Weilerstein [1966] - who is one of the most sought-after violin teachers, now that the Cleveland Quartet is no longer playing together, and Lynn Chang [1978] - who recently played at the Nobel Prize ceremony [for Chinese imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo]; then violists Marcus Thompson [1967] and Nokuthula Ngwenyama [1994]; and finally cellists Narek Hakhnazaryan [2008] and Marcy Rosen [1986]. This group had never played together before - and many of them had never even met - but it was the most gorgeous performance of the Octet I've ever heard, which ended the whole day on such a high point.

NG: It sounds amazing!

In hearing you name off the artists who performed, and looking at the program on your website [http://www.yca.org], I see that there were some changes between when the program was printed and the actual concert; this makes sense, of course, given how many players are involved. And also, I imagine it must have been a challenge to find space and time for everyone to rehearse?

SW: Yes, it was a monumental task! I had two brilliant staff members working on the rehearsal scheduling, because people were coming in two and three days before; and some people were in more than one piece. And also, people were coming in from everywhere, and we had to find spaces that were big enough, with enough pianos, etc. This was absolutely the most challenging thing I've ever done!

NG: Well, it's often when we go through such tough challenges that we reap the most amazing rewards - as certainly is the case here for you, and I'm sure for all of the performers, and not least for those in the audience. I had earlier mentioned to you how this concert is bit reminiscent of the Bang-on-a-Can marathons [the annual all-day concert held by this leading new music organization; see our interview with founder David Lang]: I think that when people spend an entire day listening to music, it creates a very different, and aesthetically rich, experience than your typical two-hour concert. I'm sure it lingered on for many days afterwards for those who were there.

SW: Yes, people were very excited about it, and remember it with great enthusiasm.

NG: It's always inspiring when younger players get together with more experienced ones; but with YCA, it's even more unique, since all the players are bonded by being part of the YCA family.

SW: I like the way you put that - and it's very true.

NG: I read how, throughout the day, there were interspersed various anecdotes about some of the alums; I'm wondering if there are any nuggets that you may want to share - for those of us who weren't able to attend?

SW: The only anecdote that I remember is one involving the violinist Christiane Edinger [1966] - she came in from Germany to play the Bach "Chaconne" [from the Partita No.2 in D-, BWV1004]; it was a stunning performance, where she was introduced by Eugenia Zukerman; in her introduction, Eugenia noted how the first time she heard Christiane perform, she was a student at Julliard, and was asked to go to the concert by a young violinist, as a first date - the violinist was Pinchas Zukerman!

NG: That's a great story, and how wonderful to have fifty years to reminisce about - and to see all these great artists that you've helped to introduce to the world.

Now, all this talk about the 50th Anniversary raises our curiosity about the very inception of YCA, back in 1961. I've read - and also heard in the wonderful video excerpt you have on your website - how you started YCA with a concert at a loft in Greenwich Village, and how the impetus for the organization came as you began to realize how difficult it was for young musicians to give concerts. Can you take us back to these early years, and perhaps share with us what exactly inspired you - and what you imagined you were creating at the time?

SW: I really didn't know what I was creating [laughs]. I had become familiar with some extraordinary young musicians, among them the pianists Ilana Vered and Richard Goode, and flautist Paula Robison - who all came to YCA in our first year.

I wanted to hear them play, but there was no opportunity for them. I found this beautiful loft space in Greenwich Village, and put on a series of 14 concerts; it was an offbeat place, but people heard absolutely first-rate music making. Things were off to a good start, but I soon realized that I had to do more for these artists. I started booking other concerts for them, working alone for the first four years or so. After a while, more and more artists wanted to play in the series, and to get concerts through me; so I needed to set up auditions. I gradually hired other people to work with me, and it kept growing little by little. It's all been very organic, and in many ways YCA is the same as it's always been - though today we get hundreds of submissions instead of a few dozens. I'm fortunate to have the help of wonderful performers, who serve on the juries; I also have fabulous people who do artist management - helping to build careers with performances and advice. We now have a series at the Kennedy Center [at the Terrace Theater] in Washington DC, in addition to our regular series in New York, now at Merkin Hall.

So, the organization has changed very little over time - except that about 15 years ago, we added a composer component to YCA; we generally choose a new composer every two years, and each has had fantastic success. For instance, one of the earliest composers we chose was Kevin Puts [1996], who has now been commissioned by several major orchestras and performers, like [percussionist] Evelyn Glennie. Kevin's first commission through us was to write a piece for the marimbist Makoto Nakura [1994]; Kevin was so fascinated that he wrote a whole marimba concerto. Evelyn heard the piece and later commissioned Kevin to write a concerto for her as well. It's good for young performers to have a chance to work with a young composer, and also for the composers to work with young virtuosos.

NG: Yes, there's no doubt that it's a great symbiotic relationship.

Staying on the early development of YCA, you noted how quickly after getting started, you began getting requests from more and more young artists - and how you also began to realize that a broader approach was needed to foster for them a nurturing environment and a more professional career. One thing you did - as you've just mentioned - was to develop auditions, as distinct from competitions. YCA makes the point that the performers are not competing against one another, but rather against a "standard of excellence". How did you come to make this distinction, and establish auditions instead of competitions?

SW: We conduct auditions, not competitions, because I was only interested in working with artists based on how talented they are. The idea of a piano competition, for example, is that it's only for pianists. But our auditions are for every instrument that can offer a viable professional life of its own - so we include flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, all the stringed instruments, piano, voice, string quartet, piano trio, etc. As such, it's impossible to have them compete against one another. The whole notion of a competition has always been a bit ridiculous to me; every performer has something unique to say, and we at YCA want to promote those artists who have an ability to say something truly special.

NG: This makes perfect sense, and is certainly a bit part of why YCA has had such sustained success - and how you've come to have a big roster so sizable that you can put on a concert featuring 100 artists from 50 years; and you've barely scratched the surface!

As you've noted, each audition has a jury made of expert performers - many being alums of YCA; I'm curious if you yourself also cast a vote in each of these auditions?

SW: Yes, I do - I serve as the chairman of the jury; but each jury has 13 or 14 people, and I'm just one vote. Everything we do is "viva voce" [vote by verbal response]; there are no secret votes, and it's all very open - and if people have a differing opinion, which doesn't happen often, we hear each side out, and try to decide which way to go.

NG: Like a true jury.

SW: Yes.

NG: Speaking of your role on the jury, I wanted to touch a bit on your own background. You were a young pianist yourself in these early days of YCA; you had studied piano at Fontainebleau with Jean Casadesus, and at the Mannes School of Music. Yet I know you also studied drama and literature at Vassar College. Did you ever entertain a performing career for yourself, and was there a particular moment of epiphany, in your conversations with Richard Goode, for example, where you said, "Okay, here's my calling - not to be a performer, but to be more of an impresario?"

SW: I actually did have something like that happen: I had always played the piano, and had studied from an early age. At the age of 12, I began studying with the great Polish pianist Mieczyslaw Munz, who was also the teacher of Ann Schein Carlyss, Emanuel Ax, and many other great pianists. I was always a gifted, but a very disappointing student; I was lazy and hated to practice. I progressed in spite of myself, because I had such a fabulous teacher; but I could never get myself to really work at it. Practicing can be such drudgery, but if you want to become a performer - and you really want to polish something so you can play it well in front of people, then it's worth it. I mean, I do drudgery at my desk all the time - but it's something I do because of how much the end result means to me.

When I graduated from Vassar, I realized that I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't want to teach English, and I wasn't going to become an actress. So, I realized that I had better buckle down and get serious about the piano, and enrolled at the Mannes College. I had a wonderful teacher there, Frank Sheridan; I practiced 4, 5, or 6 hours a day, and I really applied myself. Everything started to work beautifully. My teacher loved the way that I was playing a certain concerto, and said I should play it with the school orchestra. But the next day, I found myself spending time in a department store - instead of the piano, where I "should" have been. At that moment, I stood there and said to myself, "What am I doing here?" I then realized that I didn't want the performing life, and that it didn't appeal to me.

I stopped playing; I worked in publishing, and at the United Nations for a while. But I began to wonder what was happening to my friends at Mannes - like Richard Goode, violinist Sanford Allen [1961], and violist Jesse Levine [1961]; as well as other performers I met elsewhere, such as Ilana Vared and Paula Robison. I met all kinds of artists that I wanted to help, and then I hit upon the idea of having a concert series at this offbeat loft in Greenwich Village. It worked, and I just kept doing it, because it was fun - I then realized that I'd found my calling.

NG: It's wonderful to recognize when our individual paths lead us to where we're supposed to be, even if it may seem unclear at the moment - and clearly that's the case for you.

I've now had the pleasure of interviewing lots of wonderful, top-tier artists and composers, but this one has a unique meaning for Classical Archives, given your personal connection to our founder and CEO, Pierre Schwob. My understanding is that Pierre joined your Advisory Board in the 1970s. Can you share your recollections about his time working with you on behalf of YCA?

SW: We originally met through a young Swiss woman who was working with me at the time. Pierre took an immediate shine to Young Concert Artists; he came to our concerts and was very enthusiastic about our cause, and was able to contribute financially. In those early days, it was an incredible blessing to find a young man who was so intelligent and interesting, and who so loved classical music - and was able to offer us some support because he cared so much. And he's remained a very dear friend.

NG: I know from my conversations with Pierre how fond he is of the time he spent in New York working with you, and he just glows when an artist we're featuring at Classical Archives also has ties to YCA. In fact, I would venture to say that his whole impetus to start Classical Archives - which began with MIDI files while he was living in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, and has now evolved to offer the full classical catalogue of the labels - may not have happened but for the excitement he gained working with YCA; certainly, it helped foster his own love for classical music, and likely spurned his desire to make his own contribution - which indeed he has.

SW: Yes, he certainly has, and I would be thrilled to think that I helped that a little bit.

NG: In the closing minutes, Susan, I wanted to touch upon another issue: clearly you have so much to celebrate at YCA, and I imagine that you're enjoying witnessing the changing landscape of your new young artists - who perhaps are a bit more savvy on how to build a career than were their counterparts in the 1960s, given the Internet and social media. Still, having a career as a classical musician is always tough, and indeed I've read a few things that you've said where you voice your concerns about the future of classical music - even labeling it as a "lost part of our human culture." Can you elaborate?

SW: Oh my, did I say that?

NG: I read it in an interview that you did with Vassar College back in 2000. Well, perhaps you're not quite so pessimistic now about our ability to maintain one of our richest cultural assets. So, I'll ask you afresh: what are your views on the future of classical music, not just in YCA, but also more broadly?

SW: I think that an art form cannot simply disappear; it's like saying that a painting by Renoir is going to be nothing in 50 years. A work of art is a work of art, and classical music is a great art form - and anyone who hears it, whether they know something about it or not, will be touched, because it's great. Still, general education on music, and the general spread of classical music, has been stalled by the economy - going back to the Nixon era, when they started cutting federal funding to arts programs. Why they were cut I have no idea, because to us, of course, they are as germane and important a part of education as anything else.

But that is what happened, and now general musical "culture" does not include classical music, it's just popular music. When I was growing up, I loved popular music - today it's called the "Great American Songbook". And yet, there was also classical music, and people knew it and enjoyed it along with popular music. Somehow, classical music has not been part of young people's education; even young people going to Ivy League schools; they've just had no exposure to it, because their parents had no exposure to it - even people a little older than their parents had no exposure to it! So, we've lost a good 40 years, where kids had hardly any music education in their elementary or high school.

Over 40 years ago at YCA, I started a mini-residency program [the Annaliese Soros Educational Residency Program], where our artists who are scheduled to perform recitals would also spend a day talking to classrooms, and giving mini-concerts. Today this type of thing is more commonly done [see the related music-in-schools program discussed in our interview with Simone Dinnerstein]. When children listen to a great performance, they see that classical music is nothing to be afraid of; in fact, they love it! So, we're doing our little part; but of course one classroom at a time is a drop in the bucket compared to if general arts education were restored to the way it used to be.

NG: Yes, it's a challenge, though the fact that you continue to introduce us to these young, talented musicians indicates that there are still those kids for whom classical music is a part of their lives from an early age - enough so that they'd want to make it their career.

And yet, as you say, arts education has taken a big hit over the years. I myself have been a bit involved in the subject. I recently spoke at a joint conference of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, about arts learning through the lifespan, where the research is starting to demonstrate forcefully what we've always known intuitively as musicians: that music and arts education makes a positive impact on all areas of learning and attention building. So perhaps we have some reason to be optimistic.

SW: Not to be cynical, but when the New York State Council on the Arts was about to lose funding, they put together a study that showed how the arts in New York City brought revenue to the state. And that was the basis by which the Council on the Arts got its funding - because it was going to make money for the state. Hopefully when people do realize that arts education makes students more capable, it will help restore some of what's been lost.

NG: Well, we have to keep on fighting - as you've been doing so well these many years, and will surely continue to do so; speaking of which, any particular exciting things in the upcoming season that you'd like to share with us?

SW: Yes, we have three great new artists: one is a 19 year-old clarinetist from Belarus named Narek Arutyunian; another is an American violinist named Benjamin Beilman; and the third is a 15 year-old American pianist named George Li - all of whom are the winners of our auditions this past fall; and I will be presenting them in their debuts next season. So, that's a very exciting thing to look forward to.

NG: Absolutely, and we'll look forward to hearing them and watching their careers. Thank you, Susan; it's been a real treat to talk with you - and again, our heartfelt congratulations on 50 years!

SW: Thank you very much; I enjoyed it.

For more information on YCA and its programs, visit their website: www.yca.org.

To make a gift to YCA to assist with their vital activities, visit their online gift form.


 
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