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New dean aims to strike proper tone at Peabody

Former orchestra executive Fred Bronstein outlines goals for historic conservatory

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

August 30, 2014

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The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University opens its school year this week with about 600 students, 150 faculty members and a new dean.

Fred Bronstein, who started on the job in June after six years as president of the St. Louis Symphony, is the 16th person to take the helm since the music conservatory was founded in 1857.

His title is different, though. The designation was changed to "dean" from "director," established before the conservatory became affiliated with JHU in 1977, to make Peabody consistent with the university's other academic divisions.

Although Bronstein is still getting to know faculty, staff and students, he is already attracting attention beyond Peabody. Earlier this summer, for example, he participated in a discussion about the future of classical music on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show." And he already has plans for a seminar this fall that will involve people from around the music world.

Boston-born Bronstein, who has an undergraduate degree from Boston University, a master's from the Manhattan School of Music and a doctorate from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, brings to the Peabody post a wealth of experience from a long, eventful career.

He spent eight years as a pianist in Aequalis, a chamber ensemble he co-founded that specialized in contemporary repertoire. He started his orchestra administrator career as executive director of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the training ensemble of the Chicago Symphony. He went on to serve as president of the Dallas and Omaha symphonies.

The St. Louis Symphony, which some folks had written off after a series of financial, attendance and contract woes in the early 2000s, experienced a remarkable reversal after Bronstein arrived in 2008. It was soon back on form as one of the country's most stable and respected orchestras.

Bronstein, 57, moved from St. Louis with his wife, who works in the medical administrative field, and their 6-year-old son.

During an interview in his modest-sized office with its quaint wall-unit air conditioner, the genial dean, who talks fast and in complete paragraphs, sounded enthusiastic guiding one of Baltimore's prime cultural assets.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

After a few months settling into the job, what are your initial thoughts about Peabody?

One of the things I've been doing over the last few months is listening — a listening tour, I call it. Not a very original term, I know. I've been listening to people in the community and getting impressions from around the music world. I'm going to continue to do that.

On Feb. 12, our faculty artist Amit Peled will play the exact program that Pablo Casals played here 100 years ago, Feb. 12, 1915, and he'll be playing it on Casals' own cello. That concert really speaks to the amazing history of this place.

But one of the challenges for institutions like orchestras and music schools is how to build on the history and not be captive to it. I think Peabody, like anything else, has great strengths that can also be its weaknesses. There can be a tendency to look inward. Institutions need to be looking outward and in a very forward way.

Over five years, enrollment here is down about 12 percent. That's a concern. And the institution has been through a tough time with financial challenges. The right strategic thinking will ultimately lead to solving those financial challenges.

Can you elaborate on some of that thinking?

The four areas I am focusing on are education, the association with Hopkins, innovation and community.

The core business of the conservatory is education. You still have to come out of a conservatory a great player, but I would argue that that's not enough. You have to be developing skills to create your own path and be successful in different ways.

We're part of Johns Hopkins, one of the top universities in the world. Peabody should be absolutely on the same level in terms of selecting students.

The schools of Johns Hopkins are independent; we don't get money from Hopkins. But there is great interdisciplinary potential with Hopkins. Peabody is in a position to own the idea of interdisciplinary use of music — music and medicine, music in the liberal arts. ... At a [JHU] deans' retreat in June, I told them "We're your soul." It got a laugh, but I think it's partly true.

As for innovation, I will use an orchestra analogy. The core business of an orchestra is the classical subscription series. But you also have to embrace series of other things to create audiences and resources. Orchestras need to be educators, advocates, communicators. Music schools also need to be thinking about how to develop audiences and people's connections with music.

Peabody has an obligation to infuse itself into the community. How do you train students to have a sense of community connectivity?

The building is a little bit forbidding and mysterious, a little bit isolated. People walk by and wonder: How do you get in here? I want to explore ways to open it up more.

The previous two deans expressed many of the same things.

When people say, "We tried that before," I don't know how they tried it, what importance they put on it, or if they stayed the course full time. I don't know if we've thought about it in a strategic way. Maybe the time wasn't right.

Institutions are not known for change, but I'm going to make the case that our ability to thrive, not just survive, will depend on doing some things differently.

It was an open secret that morale among the Peabody faculty worsened during the past several years. How will you go about trying to improve that situation?

Unhappiness, infighting in the institution — I'd like to see that change. I like to keep the drama out. There has been a little too much drama here. To me, that's wasted energy.

Engaging the faculty is important. That doesn't mean we will agree on everything. [Faculty members] don't have tenure at Peabody. They act like they do. There are some fantastic people here, but we need to bring the whole level up.

I had a very, very good relationship with my orchestra members, and I worked at that. I expect to have that relationship with the faculty. I used to have lunch with the orchestra every six weeks. I may do something like that here.

I consider myself a transparent person. I'm not a shrinking violet. I'm a collaborator. No one will ever accuse me of not trying.

Peabody doesn't have quite the cachet of the Juilliard School in New York or Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Do you think the school can make a bigger mark?

I've known Peabody for a long time. Anyone in the music world does. But I have not come across as many Peabody grads [in the orchestra business] as you might expect. I'd like to see that change. And Peabody is not being quite as involved in the national conversation as it should be.

I am working on a symposium in the fall that will bring in administrative staff, artists, people from the music world with a national and international perspective. The topic will be: How is classical music changing? This will be a good way to start the conversation and project the brand of Peabody.

Just as with orchestra presidents, a conservatory dean is expected to raise lots of money. Do you mind that part of the job?

Half of my time as an orchestra CEO was spent fundraising. When you believe in an institution, I think the fundraising is easy. And there is a little bit better economic environment now.

Donors are really interesting. They're very sophisticated; they understand they are making an investment, and there is a lot of satisfaction doing that. Those are your stockholders. You have to think of them like that.

People support excellence. That is the thing people respond to most.

tim.smith@baltsun.com