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He's a multi-task force

Call Leon Botstein, whose experience as a college president informs his conducting, an activist musician.

October 26, 2008|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — Leon Botstein has been president of Bard College here, 100 miles up the Hudson from New York City, since 1975. He is an outspoken advocate for education. For instance, he believes that college should begin after 10th grade, and at Bard he has created the largest prison education program of any college in the country.

He is one of our few remaining public intellectuals. Last year, Stephen Colbert joked that Botstein -- who has a bulbous shaved head -- was the quintessential pointy-headed intellectual when the bemused academic appeared briefly on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

But Botstein is also a musicologist, teacher, author and founder of the uniquely stimulating Bard Music Festival, which is devoted to exploring in depth a different composer each summer. He is a brilliant public speaker, inveterate panelist and first-rate fundraiser.

And he is a conductor. In New York, he heads the American Symphony Orchestra. In the Israeli capital, he is music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, with which he will appear at Royce Hall on Tuesday night. He has made 30 recordings in recent years. His rediscovery of a gripping symphony by Shostakovich's forgotten contemporary Gav- riel Nikolayevich Popov won him a Grammy nomination in 2006.

He has just released the first recording of an extraordinary British rarity from 1923, John Herbert Foulds' "A World Requiem" -- a 90-minute, mystically tinged tribute to the World War I dead that in some of its techniques is half a century ahead of its time.

Still, Botstein has always struggled to get respect. He is colorful, charming, friendly, funny, wry. (Full disclosure: I served under him as an editor at the scholarly journal Music Quarterly in the '90s.) Yet he has an uncanny ability to generate suspicion and make enemies, particularly in the musical establishment. Until recently, he couldn't buy a good review in New York. Although he is an active guest conductor in Europe, he has never been invited to conduct a prominent American orchestra.

The principal charge against him is dilettantism. In an age of professionalism and specialization, no one should be able to do so many different things well. Similarly, Leonard Bernstein used to be trotted out as a prime specimen of genius spreading itself too thin.

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Why a musician?

Sitting on a terrace off his generously book-lined study at Bard one morning last summer, Botstein grew a bit prickly in defense of his conducting, pointing out that he is a professional whose schedule is equivalent to many full-time conductors'. He also noted his training.

He was born in 1946 in Zurich to Russian parents, physicians who had immigrated first to Poland and eventually found their way to New York when Botstein was 2. He studied violin as a child.

"Why am I musician?" he asked, as so often using a rhetorical question to begin a thought. "The story is a very simple one: I stuttered as a child. I never commanded any ordinary language well. My English is limited. I have shortcomings in my German and Russian. And I speak Polish the way Tonto speaks English in 'The Lone Ranger.'

"My mother, who was an amateur pianist, lost her hearing when I was a very young boy. I have no memory of my mother hearing. For me, music was the only language of any intimacy because I couldn't speak any other language. I couldn't get 10 words out without stuttering.

"I'm not a violinist because I have handedness difficulties. To me, to play well required 10 times as much time as the next kid. I did some composition, and it was pretty terrible. I ended up determined to be a conductor by the time I was 16."

After earning degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago, however, Botstein became the youngest college president in U.S. history. He was hired by the small, financially troubled Franconia College in rural New Hampshire at age 23. He moved on to the better-known Bard five years later.

"I was also an emigrant," he explained when asked how his passion for music had morphed into one for education, "and I had an emigrant attitude of European Jews fleeing Europe. I remember when I was naturalized as a 10-year-old, and there was always this sense of civic obligation."

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Back to music

After a decade at Bard, where he impressively increased the liberal arts college's national profile, he seemed primed for a bigger school. Instead, he went back to the baton, studying privately with a crusty, no-nonsense pedagogue, Harold Faberman, and remained at Bard.

He was again a musician but, he said, a different kind of musician. Because of all his intellectual and fundraising activities, he became an activist musician, an organizer.

"I hate to be pretentious and quote Ludwig Wittgenstein" -- he is writing a book on the philosopher and music -- "but he has this wonderful line that music is a form of life," he said. "And as a form of life, it informs the nature of life.

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