The Boston Conservatory:
President Richard Ortner
Richard Ortner, at the helm of The Boston Conservatory for twelve years, sounds as though he’s just sailed in to realize his life’s passion — to be at the center of one of the most remarkable institutions in the country devoted to music, theater and dance. Articulate, energetic, upbeat, especially about TBC’s next 143 years (the institution began as the Boston Conservatory of Music in 1867), the president also evinces a winning modesty about the conservatory’s accomplishments, especially under his direction. He is also gracious in his acknowledgment of sister schools, though, of course, he is proud of how TBC defines and distinguishes itself, especially in the competitive Northeast corridor and the Boston area, with its embarrassment of riches in the arts and higher education.
For one, The Boston Conservatory is modern and American. It includes contemporary work, emphasizing American musical theater, while still paying respect to the classical repertoire — Sondheim along with Sibelius. Even its founding is distinctive. In the 19th century it was rare not to follow a European model, which meant having a top-down administrative ethos and a traditional curriculum. At TBC, the faculty rules. And what a faculty it is, the president notes. His years in administration at Tanglewood and on various boards and advisory committees connected him to many of the best and the brightest artist-teachers, some of whom now work at the conservatory. It was also rare in the 19th century — not to mention much of the 20th — to open educational opportunities to African-Americans and women, something TBC was among the first to do.
Another distinction of The Boston Conservatory — its main one — is its multidisciplinary environment, though each of the tripartite divisions — music, theater, dance — has a director. At other institutions that embrace these disciplines, it tends to be the case that students concentrating in one area have little chance to interact with those concentrating in another. The conservatory’s relatively small student body (700) and concise geographical area (eight buildings all within a two-block radius) allow for ready and heady student encounters and conversation.
Of course, TBC students are fiercely competitive, but the close quarters are meant to encourage student interaction, a goal particularly important for the school. The multi-disciplinary environment also works to expose students in one discipline to the other disciplines. Who’s to say, for instance, that a theater major will not feel his or her “inner trombone” emerge? In regard to what the Web site says about a continuing “revitalization” of both facilities and programs, the president notes that a new facilities building strikingly shows in its design and construction the desirability of promoting interchange among the disciplines.
Enrollments at last count show approximately 80 students in dance, 220 in theater and 380 to 400 in music, 15 to 18 percent of whom are international students. His own job, President Ortner says unassumingly, is to “set the bar” for standards. A new academic dean is on board, as part of the conservatory’s enhanced vision. Coursework already includes some high-tech neuroscience courses and classes in anatomy and physiology, studies intended to show what is distinctively human about performers in the arts.
Still another distinction, says the president, is TBC’s “intimate and supportive” atmosphere, which freshmen sense immediately, an important corrective to the highly competitive arts world. Connections in the TBC world run wide and deep: everyone at the conservatory “performs,” by which the president means ensuring that “performance” is understood as something beyond the stage; that it embraces the classroom and the surrounding community; that professional education includes not just preparing future artists but artist citizens.
The Boston Conservatory has fully accredited graduate as well as undergraduate programs, though it’s basically the music students who go on for further study, enrolling, some of them, in the conservatory’s impressive music education program dedicated to training the next generation of teachers and music therapists, for example. Overall, TBC graduates become “core members of regional, national, and international theater, dance and opera companies, orchestras, and choruses.
Richard Ortner’s bio reflects wide and deep educational experience and friendships (Leonard Bernstein, Leon Fleisher, Gunther Schuller among them). His resume testifies to a diverse life as a performer (piano), architecture student (Cooper Union) and, of course, a music and arts administrator. He earned a B.A. in Music from NYU, studied with Richard Faber at Juilliard and, heeding Bernstein’s advice, learned about “every facet of orchestra operations, from concert production and finance to facilities management and programming.” #