Clarence Fanto: At risk of flying under the radar



With the spotlight shining brightly on the Boston Symphony, its incoming Music Director Andris Nelsons and the renowned Tanglewood Music Center academy for advanced young professionals, a stellar educational program for high school-age musicians risks flying under the radar.

Founded in 1966 at the behest of Erich Leinsdorf, the orchestra’s music director at the time, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute is based at the former Windsor Mountain School on West Street, just up the road from Tanglewood. Its young musicians, with remarkable skills, perform regularly at Ozawa Hall.

As the dean of BU’s College of Fine Arts, Benjamin Juarez, told me during a recent interview, 14 of the Boston Symphony’s current players are BUTI alumni. There are eight at the New York Philharmonic and many more at other major orchestras.

The current BUTI Executive and Artistic Director, Phyllis Hoffman, a longtime BU voice professor, explained on Friday that 44 percent of this year’s 269 students receive scholarship support, a factor contributing to the high quality of all the Young Artists programs, including the orchestra that performs on selected Saturday afternoons at Ozawa Hall. BUTI faculty and students also give recitals regularly at Ventfort Hall and Trinity Episcopal Church.

"Scholarship funding is a key to recruiting and enrolling the best talent," she said, noting that support from foundations often focuses on minority and underserved populations.

"The pursuit of classical music increasingly has become a vehicle for those youngsters to pursue their goals, and the talent pool has been extraordinary," Hoffman said. She cited a young cellist from Houston who wept on the phone when he learned he had won a scholarship to BUTI -- "he had been hiding in his room, practicing on his cello to escape deadly gang violence."

The university receives 800 to 900 applications for 270 Young Artists spots and enrolls 125 more for two-week workshops. A rigorous audition and letters of recommendation are required. This summer, students come from 35 states and a dozen foreign countries.

Tuition for a full six-week program is $6.770, but some students are enrolled for lower-priced, two-, three- or four-week sessions. In addition to 105 orchestra players, there are 69 vocalists, 52 in the wind ensemble, 30 studying piano and 10 specializing in composition. There’s even a course for four harpists.

Composer and conductor John Williams has been sufficiently impressed to include the Young Artists Chorus in his Film Night program for the third time -- on Aug. 2, they will join the Boston Pops to perform selections from his scores for "Amistad," "Empire of the Sun" and "Saving Private Ryan" as well as his "Call of the Champions," composed for the 2002 Olympics in Utah.

Earlier that day, the Young Artists Vocalists will perform their own program of all-American music at Ozawa Hall, led by the highly regarded conductor Ann Howard Jones, BU’s director of choral activities since 1993.

Proximity to Tanglewood yields many benefits, Hoffman pointed out, such as master classes and meetings with students by violinists Anne Sophie-Mutter, Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn, baritone Thomas Hampson and pianists Lang Lang and Emanuel Ax. On Friday, pianist Evgeny Kutik, who was educated at Pittsfield High, gave a class for BUTI students.

The students also attend BSO rehearsals and TMC master classes -- "a huge defining element of what makes BUTI unique," said Hoffman.

With so much going for it, why is a cloud hanging over the long-term future of the BUTI program?

Last spring, after extensive studies, the university announced a three-year reprieve, with survival beyond 2017 dependent on achieving financial "sustainability." Details await the arrival of a new executive director and a new artistic director.

"I’m optimistic that there are many options to build on the excellence of the program as it stands now and to expand the initiative that would lead to sustainability," Hoffman said, adding a hope that cutbacks will be avoided.

The new, as yet unidentified, executive director has a mandate to stop the flow of red ink at the institute and to begin intensive fund-raising. According to BU Provost Jean Morrison, if BUTI is to survive beyond 2017, the program must become self-sustaining.

"If the goal of establishing BUTI on sound fiscal footing is not met," the university will consider closing it, Morrison wrote in a staff memo.

In addition to the major burden of maintaining and eventually renovating the aging, deteriorating buildings at the 45 West Street campus, Morrison listed rising operating costs, faculty and staff salary requirements, and an increase in BU subsidies needed to sustain the program.

Another factor in the mix is the undisclosed fee BU pays to the BSO for use of its Tanglewood facilities.

Juarez, the BU College of Fine Arts dean, has called for streamlined operations, improved cost-effectiveness and expanded fundraising.

He called the institute "an extraordinary program, but like so many arts programs, it has its complexities and challenges. The recommendations made by the study committee make enormous sense and reflect the committee’s careful evaluation of every facet of the program."

Juarez stated that the plan is "not about modifying curriculum or compromising any musical endeavors, it’s to make it sustainable." He described the necessary outcome as a break-even budget no longer funded directly by BU but dependent on tuition and support from foundations and other sources.

He also described BU’s relationship with the BSO as "rich and complex Šwe buy tens of thousands of tickets. We are in the midst of a new plan that includes BUTI but will enrich our collaboration with the BSO."

"Right-sizing the program will be of core importance," Juarez emphasized, adding: "You have to increase income or reduce the expenses, look at ways to make economies of scale. Š I am beyond optimistic, I’m certain in my heart of the future of the program."

Anyone concerned about the role of music in our society must hope for a favorable outcome to assure the survival of this vital, top-drawer training program for young performers and composers with a proven track record of success.

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