5 Questions to Hilary Respass (Director, Boston University Tanglewood Institute)

The pandemic has forced many organizations into discovering innovative and entirely new ways to reach students and audience members. Some have been able to blossom profoundly in many directions, achieving progress in offerings and programming that may have never been even a remote vision on the horizon before this difficult chapter. Last summer, Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) Director Hilary Respass led the effort to start a new online program, BUTI from Anywhere, and introduced thoughtful curriculum in areas outside of lessons and ensemble work. And looking into 2022, BUTI is growing with new faculty appointments, a commission from BUTI alumnus Valerie Coleman, and further development of their national Partner Network of training programs for developing young artists from underrepresented communities. 

Let’s start with last summer’s BUTI from Anywhere endeavor. Can you talk to us about what was taught in the new elective classes on health and wellness, and the importance of offering the time and space for students to explore that topic?

BUTI from Anywhere offered us the opportunity to re-examine our curricular offerings – out of necessity – and we were excited to replace ensemble experiences that would have been impractical online with an exciting array of electives aimed at helping students deepen their artistry and expand their vision of that artistry. A Health & Wellness strand focused on building healthy habits and injury prevention, including Body Mapping and Feldenkrais. This is an extension of the Health & Wellness program we have been developing for several years at BUTI in an effort to give students tools to get out ahead of the physical, mental, and mind-set challenges of being a high performing artist.

Courses in music history including “Music of the African Diaspora,” aural training, and theory helped students build their knowledge and musicianship. I am always surprised by how much students yearn for these foundational courses, and “Music of the African Diaspora,” taught by Ashleigh Gordon, was a new addition that was one of our most popular. We also offered classes we hoped would be new inspiring provocations to students. Blues Improvisation with Marcus Printup, Global Improv with Mike Block, Playing by Ear with Aaron Flagg, Voiceover with Deborah Grausman, and Recording Technology with John Escobar were all meant to inspire and spark ideas for expanding their pursuits. Just like when we’re in person, BUTI from Anywhere was designed to encourage holistic development that gives our students tools and inspiration to expand their experience and capabilities, which will only lead to more connections for their music-making moving forward. The online format gave us more opportunity to build out this elective aspect of our programming in exciting new ways and the overwhelmingly positive student response solidifies it as a direction we will continue to pursue.

Ashleigh Gordon--Photo by Robert Torres Photography

Ashleigh Gordon–Photo by Robert Torres Photography

Taking a physical program online is a gargantuan effort! What were some surprising or otherwise unexpected successes that you encountered in this new online setting?

We feel like we birthed a new program, but preserved the BUTI “DNA” and were surprised by how much of the curriculum we were able to retain and deepen thanks to core faculty and the silver lining of being able to hire guests from a wider reach than usual. For example, in the case of orchestral rep classes, although we usually have the good fortune of drawing on the outstanding musicians of the BSO, we were able to engage musicians from orchestras across the country for the first time and do so with a specific goal of showcasing a range of artists with whom our students could identify.

At the same time, our faculty and staff hit the ball out of the park by creating an environment in which students could connect in and outside of classes to build a sense of community. Community Leaders (RAs) gathered students daily for check-ins and activities as serious as BSO NOW watch parties and sessions on what it’s like to major (or double major) in music, and as informal as Kahoot, Name That Tune, and Scribble parties.

Those of us sitting comfortably in US time zones (and especially in Eastern and Central time) were incredibly moved by the sacrifices some of our students around the world, from Europe to Asia, made to participate – driving to rented or borrowed studios in the wee hours of the morning in order to play in a masterclass, as if waking up for class in the middle of the night was not tough enough!

BUTI from Anywhere also gave us a chance to share some of our offerings with students from our partner organizations. Twenty students from Boston String Academy, Suitland (MD) High School Center for Performing and Visual Arts, Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program, Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth, Nashville’s Accelerando program and others attended classes during the summer to get a taste of what the BUTI experience entails. Some also received private lessons.

BUTI Young Artists Composition Program class--Photo by Stratton McCrady

BUTI Young Artists Composition Program class–Photo by Stratton McCrady

Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are both strong pillars of the classical music world; how has BUTI and its affiliation with these organizations changed and evolved in the last few years?

Our 55-year affiliation with the BSO is a defining feature of our program, because everything that we give to students in the studio, classroom, and rehearsal hall is magnified and amplified by their daily immersion into the sounds, sites, people, and energy of Tanglewood.  Students receive lawn passes (or this past summer, it was access to BSO NOW) and either walk or ride to the Tanglewood grounds to sit on the lawn and watch the stars during BSO performances in the Koussevitsky Music Shed, or they stand in line to fill empty seats in the Shed or Ozawa Hall. This is a tradition that dates back decades and alumni frequently tell us of their memories of these experiences, right down to the specifics about repertoire, soloists, and conductors.

More recently, we have strengthened our bonds with the BSO and have been thrilled to collaborate on performances both on stage and in community events, and on several artist exchanges. During the past five years, it has been exciting to welcome the New Fromm Players from the Tanglewood Music Center for readings and feedback sessions with our Young Artists Composition Program. Just this past summer, Iman Habibi, whose Jeder Baum spricht was performed by the BSO at Tanglewood, did several sessions with our students on composer collaborations and the practice of living a full, sustainable life as a composer, instrumentalist and activist.

This year, we were thrilled to welcome the new President and CEO of the Boston Symphony, Gail Samuel, who attributes her connection with Tanglewood to her time as a student and staff member at BUTI. The connections between our two organizations will continue to grow as we all return to campus next summer.

Iman Habibi--Photo by David Grimmett

Iman Habibi–Photo by David Grimmett

Talk to us about the process of commissioning Valerie Coleman to write a work that specifically focuses on her time at BUTI: had this idea been growing for some time in your mind, or was there a moment of nostalgia on Coleman’s part that sparked the desire to write about her experiences?

As with everything at BUTI, it was a collaborative effort! Valerie (BUTI ’89), an extraordinary artist and person, has been involved with BUTI in recent years as a teacher and Visiting Artist. When I had the idea of doing a performance project with the students this summer, the Director of the BUTI Young Artists Orchestra, Joseph Conyers (BUTI ’98), suggested something as meaningful as Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. Our Director of Education Nicole Wendl then suggested we commission Valerie to write a new work, Valerie said “Yes!” and with a gift from our generous supporter, Martin Messinger, Managing Partner of Neuberger Berman, the project was launched!

The piece, titled Ashé, is an 8-minute work, scored first for full orchestra for its virtual premiere this past summer. Next summer’s live premiere will include chorus. “Ashé” (Ah-shay) is the Yoruban word for the well-wishing phrase, “So let it be.” It is usually followed by giving a blessing to someone or something as a way of speaking it into existence. The work is a tone poem and legacy portrait of the institute, its campus, alumni, and historical connection to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ashé is a gorgeous piece that we plan to cultivate as our anthem moving forward, like Thompson’s Alleluia is for the Tanglewood Music Center.

Valerie will again be in residence at BUTI next July, and will work with our students to prepare for the live world premiere in August 2022. She’ll also be joining us as Director of our new Woodwind Quintet Workshop in June.

Valerie Coleman--Photo by Matthew Murphy

Valerie Coleman–Photo by Matthew Murphy

You’re placing a growing importance on programs for composers and contemporary classical music. What can we expect to see in the future as these developments come to fruition?

We’re excited to be rolling out a new Composition Fundamentals Workshop (working title) in June 2022 meant to equip aspiring composers with less formal training with the tools and skills to develop and put their music “on paper.” Directed by composer-pianist Martin Amlin, the Workshop is designed to complement our Electroacoustic Composition Workshop and our Young Artists Composition Program by providing a training opportunity for music students ages 14-20 who demonstrate great promise and dedication as aspiring composers, but are within the early stages of their creative practice. Through private instruction, fundamentals classes, performances of their works, and interactions with guest artists, the program prepares students for the next level of their artistic journey. The Workshop is conceived and designed as an entryway for talented students who might not otherwise have had access to intensive composition training to date. Application fees for this new program will be waived.


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