Port Jervis, New York -- When the Peabody Conservatory honored former director Elliott Galkin with a deeply felt performance of the Verdi Requiem last Friday, the air in Friedberg Concert Hall was uncomfortably heavy with irony.
Music aficionados recognize the Requiem's original dedicatee, the Italian writer and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, for inspiring Verdi's genius -- but not for his own heroic work. Galkin's achievements at Peabody have similarly been buried in reverent homages that distort or ignore the inconvenient facts of his career. The vigor, even the survival of one of Baltimore's most important cultural institutions may depend on remembering the truth of Elliott Galkin's life and legacy.
Galkin's relationship with Peabody was complex and troubled. His tenure as director was enriched by personal associations with the foremost music educators in the world -- including Karajan, Bernstein, Thomson, Donald Grout and Nadia Boulanger, whom he brought here from France. He was known as a soloist and orchestral player of both viola and tuba, and as an erudite, articulate spokesman for his vision of music's role in the arts and society. The high profile he cut as a conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and as music critic of this newspaper was an asset to Peabody during the years when, like Baltimore, it was struggling to replace an image of provincialism and obscurity with one of national prestige.
In addition to the big names and big money Peabody needed, Galkin brought a sense of the classic European tradition of music pedagogy. His cosmopolitanism and his faculty appointments began to redefine the conservatory's image in the musical community. He also had far-reaching ideas for Peabody's physical plant and curriculum; to expand rehearsal and performance spaces, to add musical specialties, to strengthen the academic side of a course roster that is almost exclusively technical, to leverage the relationship with John Hopkins. But bringing these ideas to fruition would have required stewardship as well as statesmanship -- and Galkin lacked the bureaucratic skill to run an educational institution.
Peabody, for its part, not only failed to provide the right kind of administrative support, but also resisted many of Galkin's attempts at progressive change. After he retired as director in 1983 (he continued teaching at both Peabody and Hopkins), relations remained sour between Galkin and the administrators that followed him. They felt unfairly burdened with catch-up work; he felt Peabody was betraying the opportunities he'd won for it. Through neither side was without justification, it's far easier to clean up an administrative mess than to remedy a lack of vision.
A year after Elliott Galkin's death, as last week's audience assembled to hear the Verdi Requiem, Peabody's impressive new practice facilities were taking shape down the street and a successful endowment campaign had narrowly averted financial disaster. To many, it seemed that Galkin's vision was finally within reach.
But appearances can be deceiving. For the past few years, Peabody has been trying to push its way into the top echelons of American music by trying to replicate the schools already there -- the Juilliards, the Eastmans, the Curtises. This is a game Galkin knew to avoid, and that no conservatory could win. Not even if the country needed another training camp for robotic musical super-technicians.
Galkin also knew something every chief executive knows -- that to gain a place at the top of a competitive field, you must offer something distinctive, something unobtainable elsewhere. Catch a slender thread of quality and weave with it. Find the superior detail and emphasize it. Advertising strategists call this emphasis the "unique selling proposition," and they work long and hard to define it.
Galkin virtually invented it for Peabody: He encouraged students to take advantage of the conservatory's unique relationship with John Hopkins, and he co-created the only professional degree in music criticism in the U.S. Together, these strengths could give Peabody's entire curriculum a special resonance to inform the heart and mind as well as the ear and hand to the musician.
Peabody's chances for this kind of distinction may be slipping away. The relationship with Johns Hopkins never really blossomed, and though still salvageable, it devolves by the day; the parent institution's pockets are not as deep as they once were. Meanwhile, as the administration asserts its commitment to the criticism program and presses the search for a permanent director, the program's enrollment has dwindled to a single student.
The most fitting tribute Peabody could pay Elliott Galkin would be to review these trends and recapture his vision. But it will take much more than a concert and a eulogy to do that.
Michael Clive is the classical music reviewer for the Times-Herald Record of Middletown, New York. He studied with Elliott Galkin while earning a master's degree in the Writing Seminars of the Johns Hopkins University, and taught at the Peabody Conservatory.