February 27th-March 5th: New Eastman Symphony

1998: New Eastman Symphony in Kilbourn Hall

Twenty-five years ago this week, on the evening of Monday, March 2nd, 1998, a unique student orchestra gave a concert under Brad Lubman’s direction in Kilbourn Hall.  The New Eastman Symphony, comprised primarily of graduate students and representing the Eastman School’s first-ever student-managed symphony orchestra, was enjoying its first full season as a recognized ensemble endowed with credit-earning status in the Eastman School curriculum. The concert of March 2nd—the orchestra’s fourth concert of the 1997-98 season—featured Mathis der Maler by Hindemith and the Symphony no. 9 by Shostakovich.  If any Eastman School student of the 1940s or 1950s had been transported through time to 1998, they might well have been dumbstruck at the notion of a student-managed orchestra, for during the long directorate of Howard Hanson, who openly characterized himself as a “benevolent dictator,” such a notion would have been impossible.[1]  Now, in 1997-98, society and the times had changed, and so had the Eastman School of Music.  The New Eastman Symphony was in operation with the announced mission “to equip student musicians with leadership skills necessary to help professional orchestras survive, while providing high-quality pre-professional training in orchestral performance.”[2]

►Concert program of March 2nd, 1998. This concert marked only the third performance of the Shostakovich Ninth Symphony at Eastman. Eastman School of Music Archives.  

New Eastman Symphony in concert in Kilbourn Hall on March 2nd, 1998. Brad Lubman, conductor. Eastman School of Music Archives.
New Eastman Symphony in concert in Kilbourn Hall on March 2nd, 1998. Brad Lubman, conductor. Eastman School of Music Archives.
New Eastman Symphony in concert in Kilbourn Hall on March 2nd, 1998. Brad Lubman, conductor. Eastman School of Music Archives.

New Eastman Symphony in concert in Kilbourn Hall on March 2nd, 1998.  Brad Lubman, conductor.  Eastman School of Music Archives.
 ► Photos by John Widman for the Eastman School of Music.

Significant changes had been put in motion at the Eastman School with the appointment of James Undercofler, BM ’67, as Associate Director for Academic Affairs in 1995.  Director Robert Freeman had for some time professed a deep concern for the challenges faced by classical musicians in the late 20th-century, problems that included (but were not limited to) diminishing and aging audiences, declining sales of classical music recordings, sharp cuts in public school music programs, and declining public funding.[3]  Dr. Freeman tasked the newly appointed Undercofler with the design and implementation of such programs and curricular reform as would prepare the musicians of today and tomorrow to operate and thrive in a changing society and economy.  The resulting programs were formally branded the Eastman Initiatives, a battery of co-curricular and extra-curricular programs designed to give students the skills and experience necessary to facing the demands of performance and education in a changing world.  The Eastman Initiatives were nothing less than a school-wide response to the numerous problems that were widely perceived to be threatening art music. The Eastman School’s Official Bulletin (a.k.a. annual catalogue) explicitly acknowledged the Eastman Initiatives for the first time in 1997-98, describing them as a “formal curricular review process . . . progressively reshaping the School’s programs to address the future.”  Two of the key initiatives that emerged were the Arts Leadership Program (later superseded by the Institute for Music Leadership), offering courses focused on the future of music to a select group of seniors and later subsumed under the Institute for Music Leadership, and Music for All, preparing chamber music ensembles for interactive community performances.  Besides these far-reaching programs, Mr. Undercofler (later Acting Director, 1997; Director, 1997-2006) also worked to strengthen partnerships between the Eastman School and various arts and educational organizations in the community.

In his first Convocation address after being named Acting Director, Mr. Undercofler pledged to continue the Eastman Initiatives, calling them a “rejuvenation of George Eastman’s grand vision.”[4]  He delineated four themes running through the Initiatives: to educate students to discover non-traditional ways to reach out to audiences and educate them; to prepare students to create opportunities for performers and audiences where such have not yet been imagined, with special emphasis on rejuvenating the musician-artist’s connection with his/her/their community; to expand our conception of “art music” to acknowledge the musical traditions of other cultures, and to accommodate the inevitable changes in our own conception of what is “classical”; and, to inculcate in Eastman School students a sense of initiative and leadership.[5]  Mr. Undercofler also emphasized as the most important aspect of the Initiatives a thorough reform of the undergraduate curriculum, a process aimed at identifying and protecting the curriculum’s core while incorporating into existing courses the training necessary to instill in musicians the highest level of artistry with a broad range of skills, including improvisation, music technology applications, and the interaction of music with other art forms.[6]

The Eastman Initiatives received national publicity in several contexts, including a spot on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition,[7] and articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education[8]  and Symphony Magazine.[9]   The success of the Initiatives was borne out by their permanence, for what was new in the 1990s is today part and parcel of how the Eastman School does business; the new co-curricular and extra-curricular initiatives were transparently and seamlessly folded into the school’s infra-structure.  One of the most prominent new elements, the Institute for Music Leadership, is today a thriving and essential division of the school.

It was against that backdrop that the New Eastman Symphony was founded.  In the fall of 1996 a dedicated circle of graduate students who desired orchestral performing experience organized themselves as an extra-curricular orchestra under the name New Eastman Symphony.  Their commitment was to performing standard orchestral repertory and also to giving outreach concerts whenever possible.  There was already at this time a for-credit graduate orchestra at Eastman, the Kilbourn Orchestra, which had been in operation since the early 1990s.[10]   In the spring of 1997 the newly organized NES performed two concerts under the direction of Mark Gibson, who volunteered his time and services.  For various reasons interest in the Kilbourn Orchestra had begun to decline, while in 1996-97 there was significant interest in the newly formed NES.  In the summer of 1997, the NES management group approached the ESM Administration with a proposal to merge the Kilbourn Orchestra and the NES under the NES brand on condition that they, the management group, would themselves be empowered to manage the orchestra on the same principles as they had founded the extra-curricular NES.  Their proposal met with the approval of Administration and also the faculty members of the Conducting and Ensembles Department.  Under the new arrangement, the NES Management Core Group would receive budgetary support from the Associate Director for Academic Affairs to cover expenses incurred in outreach and promotion.  The students participating in the Management Core Group would receive independent study credit through an Arts Leadership Program independent study, Practicum in Orchestral Self-Management, a course co-advised by conductor David Effron and the Associate Director for Academic Affairs.[11]  Perhaps most significantly, the NES would be recognized as one of the Eastman School’s fully-fledged student ensembles, with all members of the NES receiving academic credit.  Notwithstanding the academic recognition, it was the student management that set this orchestra apart.  NES members would share a sense of ownership for the orchestra and also a responsibility for the quality of its performances.  All members signed an attendance contract committing themselves to 100% attendance. Above all, the NES strove for a broad educational experience that not only embodied musical performance goals, but extended into management and outreach activities.  Indeed, the New Eastman Symphony initiated its outreach program with a mini-residence at Rochester’s School of the Arts, which included giving master classes and also a concert narrated by NES members.

Eastman Notes fall 1998 front cover
The New Eastman Symphony made the cover of the fall 1998 issue of Eastman Notes. A feature article in that issue detailed the orchestra’s founding and mission, and also quoted NES founder Jennifer Barlament at length.

Mr. Undercofler acknowledged the NES when he addressed the ESM community for the first time as Director, citing both the New Eastman Symphony and OSSIA, two newly founded large ensembles “formed completely at student initiative at the graduate level” as an example of the demonstration of leadership and deserving of mention among the “amazing events” that had marked the fall semester just ended.[12]   Just as significantly, when full recognition of the New Eastman Symphony was announced to the Eastman School community, Associate Director for Academic Affairs Douglas Dempster hailed the NES as an endeavor that “. . . embodies the most important principles of the Eastman Initiatives.”[13]

The orchestra’s Management Core Group was chaired by Jennifer Barlament, MM ’97, the acknowledged founder of the orchestra.[14]  The Management Core Group’s other members were:

Robin Creighton (Personnel Manager), MM ‘98

Anna Hendrickson (C&E Department liaison), MM ’97, DMA ’01

Daniel Hung (Personnel Manager and String Dept. liaison), DMA ‘02

Erika Kirsch (Ensembles Library liaison), MM ‘98

Stacey Miller (Treasurer), BM ’97, MM ‘99*

*succeeded Jennifer Barlament as chair of the Management Core Group.

Ken Potsic (Concert Office liaison), MM ‘98

Barbara Showalter (Public Relations; Winds, Brass, and Percussion Dept. liaison), MM ‘98

Scott Stratton (Outreach Coordinator), DMA ‘98

Jason Van Eyk (Secretary), MM ‘98

The administrative advisor to the Management Core Group was Dr. Douglas Dempster, Associate Director for Academic Affairs.  Professor Bradley Lubman was to be the orchestra’s principal conductor.

Thus, formally recognized as the 1997-98 academic year began, the newly accredited New Eastman Symphony gave its debut concert in Kilbourn Hall on October 19th, 1997, performing music by Mozart, Prokofiev, and Beethoven.  The concert received additional exposure through its having been scheduled during the Eastman School’s Alumni Weekend.[15]  The next NES concert was on November 9th, featuring music by Mussorgsky, Kodaly, and Brahms.  The following spring semester was an especially active one for the NES: three full symphonic concerts, a recital of chamber works, and then the semester’s traditional concluding choral concert.  On January 25th, 1998, Brad Lubman conducted the orchestra in music of Wagner, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky; and on March 2nd, Professor Lubman conducted the orchestra in the concert profiled here.  On April 5th, David Effron conducted the NES in a concert of works by Mendelssohn and Brahms, the latter being the Double Concerto in A minor, with featured guest soloists Oleh Krysa and Steven Doane.  A flourishing finale for the New Eastman Symphony’s first full season was the concert of May 3rd, 1998, when the NES was the ensemble of choice for a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the Eastman Theater.  The Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman Chorale, four soloists, and the NES were all directed by the renowned Robert Shaw (1916-1999), guest conductor.

During its seasons of operation, NES performers gave several recitals of chamber music that diversified the orchestra’s offerings.  There were also collaborations with faculty members; violinist Oleh Krysa appeared with the NES in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Mr. Krysa and violoncellist Stephen Doane together appeared with the NES in Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor.  Moreover, this was an orchestra that, founded in the closing years of the 20th century, was clearly at home with 20th-century repertory, performing such works as Lukas Foss’ Renaissance Concerto, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and The Rite of Spring and The Firebird; Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler; Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major; Gershwin’s An American in Paris; Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra;  John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” from the opera Nixon in China; and in a concert on November 22nd, 1998, Gustav Mahler’s complex and challenging Seventh Symphony, marking the Eastman School premiere of that work.  An emphasis on publicity and community connection was clearly on the orchestra’s agenda, for an invitation to join the orchestra’s mailing list was included in each concert program.

►Promotional flyer for the New Eastman Symphony, outlining the orchestra’s mission, and advertising the spring, 1998 concerts. Note the season finale of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which would be conducted by the renowned Robert Shaw (1916-1999). Eastman School of Music Archives.  

Nor was the NES the only student-managed ensemble to emerge from the atmosphere of innovation at the Eastman School in the 1990s.  OSSIA, founded by a circle of graduate students and student composers, gave its debut performance in October, 1997, and has flourished in the years since then.  As events came to pass, notwithstanding the enthusiasm that had greeted the New Eastman Symphony’s founding, the NES ceased operations in the spring of 2000.  The reasons for the cessation were not publicly circulated at the time, nor are they publicly accessible or retrievable now.  In what proved to be the orchestra’s valedictory concert, the New Eastman Symphony performed Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem Ein Heldenleben in the Eastman Theater, conducted by Mendi Rodan (served on faculty 1999-2002).  If such an ambitious experiment in self-management and performance by enterprising and industrious students had to come to an end, the Strauss was perhaps the most appropriate note on which to conclude.  For those three academic years, Eastman School students had demonstrated what a student-managed orchestra could do.  Today the NES performances are preserved on digital tape and on magneto-optical discs in the Eastman Audio Archive; CD service copies of these recordings are accessible in the Sibley Music Library (Recordings and Reserves desk, 3rd floor).  Simply point your browser to the SML homepage and enter the query “new eastman symphony” (with the quotation marks) in the DiscoverUR search query field; the retrieval set will show 22 hits.  If you are already part of the networked UR community, you can listen to the 1998 performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis via streaming (link embedded within the DiscoverUR bibliographic record).

While it’s beyond the scope of this entry to track the professional progress of all NES members, I would observe that members of the New Eastman Symphony’s management core group have gone forward professionally in a variety of fields, ranging from academe to orchestral management to finance.  In 2016, after serving in management positions with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and The Cleveland Orchestra, NES founder Jennifer Barlament was appointed Executive Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

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[1] Dr. Hanson described himself thus in more than one published interview.  Eastman School of Music Archives.

[2] From a statement printed in the concert program, An Afternoon of Chamber Music, New Eastman Symphony, Sunday, October 18, 1998.  That concert was the first NES event that this listener had the opportunity and the pleasure to attend, while interviewing at the Sibley Music Library.

[3]  Such problems were later summed up by James Undercofler in his Inaugural Address as ESM Director, April 25, 1998. Eastman School of Music Archives.

[4] Convocation Address by James Undercofler, Acting Director, Eastman School of Music, September 4, 1997.  Eastman School of Music Archives.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  “Eastman on the air:  National Public Radio examines Initiatives.” Eastman Notes, winter 1998, page 17.

[8]  “Eastman Initiatives get noticed.”  Eastman Notes, July 1997, page 12.

[9]  “Learning to Teach” by Heidi Waleson.  Symphony Magazine,  vol. 48, no. 5 (January-February 1997), pages 16-20, 54-57.

[10] The Kilbourn Orchestra had been recognized when the Eastman School mounted the symposium “Popular Music and the Canon: Old Boundaries Reconsidered” (September 26-29, 1996), which included a concert of music by Frank Zappa and Steve Vai in the Eastman Theater that featured guest artist Steve Vai performing as soloist with the Kilbourn Orchestra.

[11]  Besides the NES history printed in the 1997-98 promotional flyer displayed here, further background was provided in a letter addressed to “All interested faculty, staff, and students” from the desk of Douglas Dempster, Associate Director for Academic Affairs, October 1st, 1997.  In addition, Jan Fitzpatrick’s feature article “With New Eastman Symphony, students take charge” in the fall 1998 issue of  Eastman Notes introduced the NES to the wider Eastman School community.

[12]  Letter, January 2, 1998, James Undercofler addressed “Dear Eastman Friends”.  Copy in ESM Ephemera file, year 1998, Ruth T. Watanabe Special Collections.  Mr. Undercofler noted that this was his first occasion to address the community as Director, rather than Acting Director.

[13]  Memorandum, October 1, 1997, addressed to “All interested faculty, staff, and students” from the desk of Douglas Dempster.  Eastman School of Music Archives.

[14]  “With New Eastman Symphony, students take charge” by Jan Fitzpatrick.  Eastman Notes, fall 1998, page 17.

[15]  A photo of the NES with conductor David Effron taken at that concert was published in Eastman Notes, winter 1998.  The printed program issued by the Concert Office promoted the Kilbourn Orchestra and not the New Eastman Symphony; the concert of January 25th, 1998 marked the first time that a concert program had promoted the New Eastman Symphony.  Nevertheless, there can be no question that the orchestra on-stage in Kilbourn Hall on October 19th, 1997 was the newly recognized New Eastman Symphony.

May 23rd – 29th: Anti-war activity & weekly dozen

On May 24th and May 27th, 1970, a pair of concerts were mounted in the Eastman Theater to raise funds for the national circulation of an anti-war petition that had been written by two University of Rochester faculty members.

May 16th – 22nd: Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount

On Monday and Tuesday, May 16th and 17th, 1955, Howard Hanson’s opera Merry Mount was produced at the Eastman School’s annual Festival of American Music.

May 9th – 15th: Eastman String Quartet & the “new” Sibley Music Library

On May 9th, 1960, the members of the Eastman String Quartet returned from their nine-week tour that had taken them to Southern Europe, the Near East, and Northern Africa.

May 2nd – 8th: Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer & Ruth Watanabe

On Saturday, May 5th, 1973, the renowned Thad Jones appeared as guest conductor and soloist with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble