By Anne E. Johnson
NEW YORK — It was a century ago that violinist-conductor David Mannes and his wife, pianist Clara Damrosch Mannes, launched a small, innovative conservatory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. While the Mannes School of Music has seen a lot of change, including relocation to the West Side, the conservatory endures as a vital institution whose 100th anniversary its students, alumni, and faculty will celebrate April 25 in a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Over the decades, Mannes has produced its share of notable graduates, including mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and pianists Murray Perahia and Richard Goode. But the school’s true claim to fame is more what’s behind the scenes than what shows up in the spotlight. “It was a marvel to the world,” said veteran faculty member Elizabeth Aaron of Mannes’ novel approach to teaching techniques of music by intertwining music theory, ear training, diction, and keyboard harmony. “We required four years of techniques of music training for everyone in all majors. It makes a good base for all musicians, no matter what they want to do in music.”
Aaron has been teaching techniques of music since she got her master’s degree at Mannes in 1958. She remembers those early days with great fondness, when she helped develop the theory program started by Felix Salzer (1904-86). “There was a strong sense of camaraderie among the faculty,” Aaron said, “and the students sensed it.”
Among Aaron’s classmates who also joined the faculty was Carl Schachter. He would soon become dean and was for decades one of the school’s most revered and influential teachers. Schachter wrote two music theory books with fellow Mannes faculty – Counterpoint in Composition with Felix Salzer and Harmony and Voiceleading with Edward Aldwell. In the video below, Schachter explains a little about the theoretical concepts of Schenkerian analysis, the approach to tonal music theory invented by theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) that Schachter advocates:
Despite its standing as a conservatory, Mannes was so deeply in debt by the late 1970s that the school had to raise an emergency $200,000 or close. Musicologist Charles Kaufman led a revolt against the board of trustees when it tried to merge Mannes with the Manhattan School of Music against the wishes of the faculty. Kaufman, who became dean, eventually made the difficult decision in 1989 to trade Mannes’ independence for the financial backing of The New School University.
That merger is still in place, and Kaufman, who died in 2016, is remembered by some as the man who saved Mannes. Others think of him as their most beloved teacher. “He was warm, funny, responsive, and caring, and had a way of finding just the right thing to say when it really mattered,” recalls composer and theory teacher Eric B. Chernov, a 1996 graduate who, in addition to his position on the Queens College faculty, has taught children in the Mannes Preparatory Division for more than 20 years.
Mannes has evolved further since Kaufman’s day. In 2011, Richard Kessler became dean, bringing a vision of Mannes as an institution for the 21st century. As he told the New School Free Press during his first year in office, “I’m not interested in maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake.”
One of the most striking traditions to end on Kessler’s watch was the conservatory’s venue. In 2015, Mannes left the West 85th Street location they’d used for 30 years and claimed space in Arnhold Hall, the New School’s new multipurpose building on West 13th Street.
“It’s different now,” said Aaron. “When you become part of a larger institution, you have to follow the rules of the larger institution, which is not always best for the smaller one.” While she admires how the students can take a wide range of courses and have access to more numerous and better sound-proofed practice rooms, she regrets how the core requirements in techniques of music aren’t nearly as stringent as they once were.
However, Aaron acknowledges that change is inevitable. “I was on the search committee to find the new dean [in 2010-11], and all the candidates shared Richard Kessler’s view that Mannes was too old-fashioned. What you see now is not what you’ll see in five years.” (Aaron plans to retire at the end of the 2016-17 school year after 59 years on the Mannes faculty.)
“Students now are much more open to the idea of creating their own paths,” said David Hayes, who teaches conducting and directs the Mannes Orchestra. Hayes will conduct the concert at Carnegie. “Now they don’t feel they have to follow traditional paths. Students in the orchestra are involved in their own projects, collaborating with people from other programs.” Often such collaborations happen in the newly formed College of Performing Arts, which links Mannes with the jazz and theater programs. Another new opportunity is the relocation to The New School of an experimental music workshop called The Stone. It was established in 2005 by John Zorn, and the classes are now taught in part by Kessler.
Mannes’ many musical facets will be on display in the Carnegie centennial program. Two Mannes alums, Michel Camilo and Ricky Ian Gordon, both pianist-composers with jazz training, will each play one of his own works (Gordon with von Stade). To show off more traditional fare, Simone Dinnerstein will perform part of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C. The Orion String Quartet will be featured in Erwin Schulhoff’s Concerto for String Quartet and Winds.
Tenor and recent alumnus Theo Lebow and others will perform highlights from Verdi’s Rigoletto. For an entirely different spin on vocal music, the children of the Mannes Prep Chorus will sing a song by another famous alumnus, Burt Bacharach. “The idea that a classical conservatory would honor a pop star,” said Hayes, “someone who doesn’t seem to fit, goes to Mannes’ new wider outlook. In order to be successful in other genres of music, you still need solid classical training.”
The evening’s pull-out-the stops finale brings the last movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection). “It lets the orchestra play something with meat on it, after all that accompanying,” said Hayes. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan and mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani will be the soloists, with help from the New York Choral Society. Some alumni players have been invited to beef up the orchestra’s strings to Mahlerian strength.
For more information and tickets to the Mannes Centennial at Carnegie Hall, click here.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.