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Colburn Conservatory of Music prepares the orchestras of tomorrow

It's musical learning at the highest level at the downtown Los Angeles school.

January 04, 2009|Charles Koppelman

Michael Byerly, a clarinet player from Oregon, is in Colburn's postgraduate program and studies with Yehuda Gilad, who is also the music director of the Colburn Orchestra. Gilad has played with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale. Dozens of his former students play professionally around the world.

Today Byerly has a private lesson in Gilad's office/studio -- a spacious room with a Chinese wall hanging, an exercise bike and a grand piano. Gilad is a short, compact man with a trim beard and eyes that dance. He's in his stocking feet.

Byerly is about to play "Zigeunerweisen" (Gypsy Airs) by Pablo de Sarasate, arranged for clarinet. Deborah Berman, dean of Colburn, is observing today and suddenly offers to play the accompaniment.

"I haven't played the piano part in a while," she says. "But I can fake it."

Michael returns with the piano music and they begin. Berman was being modest. Byerly plays standing up and attacks this complex piece with the verve, technique and feeling it requires. His virtuosity confirms why he recently became principal clarinet with the Tucson Symphony.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Colburn Conservatory: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books section about the Colburn Conservatory of Music said the Jascha Heifetz Studio now at the school was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; it was designed by his son Lloyd Wright. Also, the last name of the executive director of the Colburn Foundation, Ruth L. Eliel, was misspelled as Elial.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 18, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Colburn Conservatory: An article Jan. 4 about the Colburn Conservatory of Music said that the Jascha Heifetz Studio now at the school was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; it was designed by his son Lloyd Wright. Also, the last name of the executive director of the Colburn Foundation, Ruth L. Eliel, was misspelled as Elial.

Afterward Gilad describes criteria for being on the Colburn faculty: "Be a virtuoso teacher, have your students come first, offer solutions, place your students in the best competitions and orchestras, and be a mensch."

Indira Rahmatulla, a second-year cello student from Ankara, Turkey, with a bright green muffler around her neck, heads for ear training class. "I'm surrounded by talented people," she says, gracefully guiding her cello case into the elevator. Rahmatulla was second at the 2006 Aram Khachaturyan International Cello Competition in Armenia. She already has top-level orchestral experience in the Chicago Civic Orchestra.

Ear training helps musicians identify intervals, chords, rhythms and other basic elements of music. Colburn students take the class to "visualize what others are playing around them," instructor Doug Dutton explains.

Dutton, who maintains a friendly demeanor with his 14 students who sit around a U-shaped table in a windowless classroom, turns to the task at hand: a Bach chorale. On cue the students begin to sing richly. Dutton stops the group. "Is this a true D-F-A chord? Is two a passing tone?"

One of them volunteers a comment about the music: "It's so awesome."

Like so much about this place, Dutton defies expectations. In addition to teaching music theory and ear training, he owned and operated Dutton's in Brentwood, a treasured independent bookstore that closed last spring after 20 years.

Dutton steps out to the lobby area where his next class awaits. "All right, you guys, get . . . in here!"

Colburn is an enviable hothouse nourishing the growth of tomorrow's top musicians. But it also faces real-world challenges. A recent controversy erupted when the School of Performing Arts phased out the Suzuki method. The approach, which relies on group teaching and memorization, was dropped because it limits preparation students need for later advanced study, according to the school.

The endowment provided by Richard Colburn, worth about $375 million a year ago, according to board Chairman Bob Attiyeh, has dropped in value to $250 million in the financial meltdown. To protect the core music program, several of the 62 staffers are being let go and routine expenses are being reduced. (The faculty numbers 34.)

Recently the school's president, Miguel Angel Corzo, suddenly resigned. Corzo was not fulfilled by the heavy administrative responsibilities, according to Attiyeh, and a search committee has been formed to fill the job by fall.

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'Blessed to teach'

It's time for Silverstein's private violin lesson with Lipsett in the Jascha Heifetz Studio -- the original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed practice space violinist Heifetz built at his Beverly Hills home in the 1940s. Several years ago, actor James Woods purchased the Heifetz home and donated this room to the school. It lay disassembled in a warehouse for more than 10 years until it could be reconstructed.

Lipsett has slicked-back graying hair and wears running shoes. The heavy door closes, and there's a noticeable change in air pressure in the hexagonal room. "A perfect acoustic space," Lipsett explains. "There are no right angles, and the walls are made of 2,000-year-old redwood." One of Heifetz's violins is mounted on a shelf. "I'm blessed to teach here," Lipsett says with a smile. "But I never sit in his chair."

Silverstein warms up on a B-flat minor scale and turns to Wieniawski's "Polonaise Brillante," a piece she's learning. Coincidentally or not, this was a favorite piece of Heifetz's.

"OK. Pretty good, pretty clean," Lipsett says as she finishes. "Very good for the first lesson. Now, let's bring out the charm as well as the virtuosity. Relax a little more away from absolute time."

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