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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Robert Sirota

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-06

Robert Sirota makes music in a meditational well.

"That isn't a rational choice, or a calculated choice," the president of the Manhattan School of Music said. "I simply cannot imagine doing anything else. Composing for me is like being in a meditational well - you need to develop tremendous powers of concentration."

His powers of concentration are prodigious. Sitting at a restored Ivers & Pond piano for nearly two hours each morning, he composes with pen and paper. Tapping into that meditational well has yielded more than 70 works - from solo instrumentals to full length operas.

Those compositions have been performed by orchestras and individuals across the country and around the world, securing for Mr. Sirota an enduring reputation as one of America's most distinguished - and sought after - composers.

"There are things that I cannot do - like building a bridge or writing a novel. But this I own - I can compose," Mr. Sirota said.

For nearly a year now, Mr. Sirota has been tapping into his meditational well for more than just his musical compositions.

As the eighth president of the Manhattan School of Music, Mr. Sirota has embarked on a special mission to increase the visibility and viability of the storied 88-year-old academy.

"My talent is in clarifying the mission of an institution, ratcheting up its marketing and branding," he said. "My task is to externalize the things about the school that are less known - its superb faculty, innovative programs, first rate facilities, brilliant alumni. The school is far better than the perception. So how do we get the word out? How do we re-position the school so that more people understand its importance?

"I believe in the tremendous potential of the place - and I don't want to mess it up. And so far, my experience in reorganization and restructuring of the school has been very invigorating. For better or worse, I want to be master of my own destiny - I have to live or die by the decisions I make to take the school to new heights," Mr. Sirota said.

Lest that be perceived as hubris on his part, consider this: In his previous job, as director of the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Sirota almost quadrupled the endowment to $80 million in barely a decade.

Earlier, as chairman of the department of music and performing arts at New York University, director of the school of music at Boston University, and professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Sirota gained national attention for his management skills and popular teaching methods such as establishing alliances with foreign conservatories.

He once took a group of 30 students to the Moscow Conservatory, where the Americans had been invited to a music festival. The year was 1991, the erstwhile Soviet Union was collapsing, and there were soldiers in the street aiming water cannon at protestors agitating against die-hard Communists.

"The administration of the Moscow Conservatory had vanished," Mr. Sirota said. "I found myself commandeering an office from which to organize the music festival. It was a great wilderness experience."

His students found that experience especially educational - as did their Russian counterparts. Mr. Sirota's group gave them music diskettes, and violin strings, then in short supply in Moscow. Americans and Russians reached into their respective musical repertoires to produce a fine festival. Lasting friendships were formed even as great political turbulence buffeted the students in Moscow.

Turbulence of a different sort is buffeting the world of music - particularly orchestral music - these days, according to Mr. Sirota.

"In the last decade, audiences have changed their habits. For example, fewer people are buying season subscriptions," Mr. Sirota said. "They have more entertainment choices. They don't have to go to stores any longer to get their music. They can download it through the Internet. Thus, there's a certain amount of dissonance in our world."

Mr. Sirota deals with the dissonance in his capacity as president of a stellar music academy, and also as a highly regarded thinker on the future of music education in America's 500 music schools and university music departments.

"The question before us is, 'How do we re-imagine these institutions of music and learning so that they uphold tradition and also prepare their students for a multiplicity of new challenges?'" Mr. Sirota said.

In twinning his mission of getting the school better understood by a wider public, and also getting that same public - as well as constituents in the music world itself - to better understand the melding of tradition and innovation in music education, Mr. Sirota has won an important ally. He is David Rahm, the school's board chairman and a prominent real estate lawyer.
Mr. Rahm and the board have enthusiastically endorsed Mr. Sirota's moves such as commissioning the noted designer Michael Beirut to rebrand the institution. Measures in the work include developing a new logo.

Measures also include drawing public attention to the diversity of the school's 854 students, who pursue bachelor's and master's degrees and doctorates, and to the 275 faculty members who consist of leading soloists, chamber and jazz artists, and members of performing institutions in the city.

And Mr. Sirota has accelerated efforts to highlight the fact that the school's noted alumni include Pulitzer Prize winning composers John Corigliano and Aaron Jay Kernis; sopranos Lauren Flanigan, Catherine Malfitano, Dawn Upshaw and Dolora Zajick; mezzo-soprano Susan Graham; singer, pianist, composer, and actor Harry Connick, Jr.; jazz Pianist Herbie Hancock; jazz Flutist Herbie Mann; and recording artist and longtime star of "Sesame Street" Robert "Mr. Bob" McGrath.

The fact that the school has such alumni is helpful in Mr. Sirota's fund raising efforts. With an operating annual budget of $28 million, the school is in the black. But the president wants to increase its endowment to at least $100 million, from about $15 million now.

"At the same time, it's important for us to look at the changing landscape out there," Mr. Sirota said. "We're being called to develop a model for a conservatory that's more responsive to students. We also want to help develop a generation of musician entrepreneurs who will be fluent with such things as using Web sites in support of their work. Our students have to learn to develop their own careers.

"We're looking to spread word of best practices in the music business. We have to be very quick and agile in responding to the market. The music business may not be moribund - but it is in transition," Mr. Sirota said.

The lunch ended. It was time for him to return to his meditational well.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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