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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Marta Istomin

Marta Istomin

Publicly prominent personalities vary. Some come into the limelight reluctantly, preferring the back-seat, supportive role sometimes played by a public person's spouse. Others are bom into a world that focuses eager attention on them from their earliest years. And still others, first coming to widespread attention through their association with celebrities, then acquire a totally independent persona which makes them interesting and vital contributors to their world in their own right. Marta Istomin is clearly of the last type. Among her many platforms, she has become the President of one of our leading conservatories, the Manhattan School of Music.

Marta Angélica Montañez y Martinez was bom in Puerto Rico where she began her music studies at the age of six under the tutelage of her uncle. Rafael Montañez was a poet and newspaperman as well as a musician who taught her the fundamentals of the violin and solfeggio, and who was instrumental in her transferring, upon graduation from public school at the top of her class, to New York's Marymount School of the Convent of the Sacred Heart of Mary. During her four years there, she briefly considered devoting her life to work in a Catholic religious order. She also began to study the cello with Lieff Rosanoff at The Mannes College of Music, making astonishingly rapid progress. Uncle Rafael took her to the Perpignan Festival in 1951 (when she was 15) and asked the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals-whose mother came from Puerto Rico — to hear her play. Impressed with the girl's natural talent, he told her to go back to New York and that he would accept her as a student when Rosanoff judged her ready.

In the spring of 1954, Marta Montañez graduated maxima cum laude from Marymount. To her credit was an award for being a top Latin student in New York State, a considerable proficiency as a cellist and singer, and a reputation for being well organized, fast, efficient, energetic, and generous. With these promising attributes in her kit bag, she went back to Europe to see if the Maestro, then at the Prades (France) Festival, might make good on his offer to take her on as a student. He did, soon feeling a personal responsibility for her. There are, from that time, touching photographs of Casals inscribed to Martita and signed "Tío Pablo," and by the 1955 Festival she was identified as his favorite student. From Prades she accompanied him to the Zermatt Summer Academy of Music where Casals held master classes in the interpretation of cello literature. It was during that summer, too, that she first came to meet two music enthusiasts whose personalities were immediately and indelibly inscribed in her memory: Albert Schweitzer and Charlie Chaplin. During the year that followed, 1956, a new and very special festival was organized and Marta was of inestimable help in managing the welter of logistics inevitable with such a venture. Pablo Casals was music director, Alexander Schneider assistant director of San Juan's Festival Casals, with the first festival scheduled for the following year.

Three events occurred in rapid succession in 1957: Casals suffered a major heart attack; the first Festival Casals took place as scheduled but supervised by the faithful Sasha Schneider; and, in August, the music world took note of the marriage of Casals to his student and assistant, the vivacious Martita. She was to be his helpmate and the love of his life until his death in 1973 at the age of 97.

We asked Marta Istomin — she married the pianist Eugene Istomin in 1975 — to reflect on her multidimensional life. Did she, as a student at Mannes, contemplate a career as a professional cellist? "Oh yes. My parents expected it. My teachers expected it. That's what I was supposed to do. I played in orchestras, I did some solo work, I played lots of chamber music, and I enjoyed it all. But you know, at that time young people were not as intense about making a career as they are today.

You were at school to get as much as you could about musical knowledge, playing as much repertory as you could, learning from everybody. Careers would (or wouldn't) come later, and I think this attitude was better, both artistically and humanly. An artist, to me, is a person who must absorb a culture and digest it, and then recreate it. That takes time, and if you try to rush it by overspecializing too early, you get only a part of the picture."

Absorbing culture is second nature to Marta Istomin, who has put her artistic training and her administrative facility at the service of the arts. A year after Pablo Casals's death, she accepted a visiting professorship of cello at the Curtis Institute and, at the same time, became co-chairman of the Casals Festival. She had become acquainted with Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas, and it was he who brought her to the attention of Roger L. Stevens, who invited her to become artistic director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a position she held for a decade (1980-90). Her function, with the Chairman, was to articulate artistic policies of Kennedy Center, and her specific areas were music, dance, and opera. There she took an active role in programming, booking outside attractions, and developing independent creative productions and commissions. Mrs. Istomin is quick to point out that, while the Federal government enabled the establishment of the building itself as a living shrine to President Kennedy, the Center receives no government appropriations for its programs, and funds for its operations must be found in the same way that other cultural organizations must find them.

In 1990, she became general director of the Evian Music Festival (France), and in the same year President Bush appointed her a member of the National Council on the Arts. She continues to serve as a trustee of the Marlboro Festival and the Marymount School and, in 1992, she took on the presidency of the Manhattan School of Music. With all these concerns and demands on her energies, she nevertheless manages to exude warmth, relaxation, and wit. The only apparent sacrifice to her heavy schedule has been the cello — a beloved pastime she now leaves to others.

We spoke about some of the colorful personalities she has known, some of the Titans who loomed larger than life, some of the heroes. She is not likely to forget the afternoon spent listening to Casals and Schweitzer exchange ideas on the state of the world, a get-together made even more personal for the then 19-year-old Martita by Schweitzer's insistence on soliciting her own opinions. The combination of his enormous stature and his deep humility made him particularly memorable, as did the spontaneity he displayed when he invited her to improvise with him at the organ in Günsbach. Another unforgettable dichotomy was Chaplin, a man who could be intensely serious one moment and suddenly break out into the comic roguishness that endeared him to the whole world. She recalls a lunch with Casals, Clara Haskil, and Arthur Grumiaux at which grave world issues were being thrashed out until a typically Chaplinesque caprice cut through the gloom and everybody roared.

How about today? Do young people have heroes? "I doubt it, except for maybe a few. I don't see the respect for teachers and mentors that we used to have. When I was a youngster, young people had such respect for their elders, they were so anxious to hear what people with life experience had to say, they were like sponges, sopping up the insights of those with great achievement to their credit. Today's young people challenge — not a bad idea so long as the respect is there. But sometimes I feel that some young people come to concerts or to class just to criticize and find fault, rather than to listen for what they could learn. I remember inviting someone to different concerts in Washington and always being turned down because the artists were not to their liking. If you don't truly love music, how can you have musical heroes?"

And what has she found since coming to the Manhattan School of Music six months ago? "Well you know, young people are always refreshing. But again, in many ways I notice that many of them are not as committed as my group used to be. I'm shocked at how many students don't show up to hear the concerts of their teachers or peers. I understand that they have a lot to do and that we don't have a campus like some universities, but I find the lack of interest in attending concerts a very telling thing. I miss that. I think that, as a student, one should be eager to absorb everything. I'm afraid that too many of them are wasting an opportunity." On the other hand, she finds the level of student accomplishment surprisingly high, even higher than she had expected of one of America's top conservatories. She is equally pleased by the dedication of staff and faculty. And she regards her mandate as a great challenge, all too well aware of today's difficulties in raising funds and attracting first-rate students and faculty.

"The role of concert music in our society, too, has changed and probably diminished," she says. "Concert artists have to do much more than just perform. They have to look good and be charming and charismatic. But think of the past. Heifetz never moved a muscle and, boy, did he exude emotion and excitement! But all those things people are asked to be today have nothing to do with the music. And audiences are absolutely less prepared to listen to music today than they were in the past. They may know that they shouldn't applaud between movements, but how much they know of the music they are hearing is questionable. A lot of people go to concerts for the event itself, for the social implications, and for the entertainment value rather than treasuring music as a necessary part of their inner lives."

Did she believe that people of high visibility had a responsibility for bringing their political, artistic, and human values to bear? "I think it absolutely necessary, and I sometimes find myself in the minority. Most people tend to jump on the bandwagon. While I think that it's necessary to evolve and sometimes make small compromises, that's not the same thing as giving up essential beliefs and values. Casals used to say, `I am a man first, and a musician second.' We are first human beings and, as such, owe it to our fellow human beings to fight for our beliefs and values."

When Marta Montañez Casals Istomin speaks, her lilting Latin inflection is still audible, and when the topic turns to Puerto Rico, there is no doubt of her personal involvement, of her readiness to embrace her heritage. She speaks of "our" culture, not of "theirs." "I don't think it's more difficult to get an arts and humanities education in Puerto Rico than elsewhere. We come from a pure Spanish culture. We may be bilingual, but our language is Spanish. The big problem in Puerto Rico is identity. Many of us have the Spanish, the European, heritage but since 1898 we are U.S. citizens and under U.S. influence. While we may love the American flag and all that it stands for, we also do not wish to lose our unique identity, beginning with the language and the Spanish culture. After all, between 1898 and 1940, English was imposed on us as the official language of Puerto Rico, and only thereafter was Spanish reinstituted. It's very confusing to many people. But there is no one in Puerto Rico who would suggest that western culture and civilization are irrelevant."

Those who knew the young Marta invariably single out her sense of humor and gift for mimicry as a prominent part of her personality. Did she still sport them? "Well, perhaps I use the mimicry less than I used to, and then only in a very homey atmosphere. But a good sense of humor is a very important part of life. You can't be intense all the time, and you have to look at yourself and many situations with humor."

But there is nothing glib about the way her life is programmed, beginning with her marriage. How did two high-power professional people in the arts find the time for their "alone together" private lives? "Oh, we make time! It's true that we're both busy, but when we first got married, we made a rule that we would not be separated for more than a week at a time, and that rule is still in effect."

As Marta Istomin talks about her role at the helm of the Manhattan School of Music, one gets the sense that she is spending her first academic year in assessment, in relating the past to the present, but that she is now becoming eager to cast out for the future, to leave her own personal imprint that will distinguish her tenure from everything that has come before her. "There are many things that need to be improved, both in curriculum and facilities," she says. "For example, our orchestral program is truly one of the School's columns because it touches practically every student here. We are so fortunate in obtaining Sixten Ehrling [former music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and professor at The Juilliard School] as chief conductor of our orchestra. Furthermore, we are exploring the feasibility of offering our students cross-registration with nearby Columbia [University] and Barnard [College], thereby giving them more opportunity of choice for their general education. Those who are enrolled in our masters degree program will also be able to inform themselves on the business of music, so they can get a clear idea of what the music world is really like and what will be expected of them once they graduate. And we are very much committed to finding opportunities for minority students, those who can be attracted to concert music. Through our outreach programs, we are sending groups to the public schools and churches, and we are always recruiting and on the lookout for talent."

Did she think that a music school had a responsibility to contemporary composers? "Complete responsibility. Not only must a conservatory have composers teaching composition in the many diverse styles of today, but it must also insist that students in the performing arts become acquainted with this music. They may wind up liking it or they may reject it, but if they are to be properly educated in their art, they must know it. People may not remember, but Casals played a lot of the music of his time. But he was very selective and played only what particularly appealed to him. The Schoenberg/Monn concerto [a harpsichord concerto by the 18th-century Austrian composer Georg Matthias Monn, transcribed for orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg], for example, was dedicated to him, but he never played it."

And what were her views on that great buzz word, bandied about parlors and periodicals, "multiculturalism?" "Well, as a member of the National Council on the Arts, I have heard all the arguments. I have listened to those who would preserve the culture of the many countries that have brought their roots to this melting pot of a country. I agree that preservation is desirable and, in music, the most elemental expression of what needs to be nurtured is the many forms of folk music. On the other hand, we cannot be all things to all people. Our responsibility at the Manhattan School of Music is to preserve the heritage of concert music, the music of the western European tradition which includes American music and which represents, in my opinion, the highest achievement of the creative mind and spirit. To that we have added jazz as a typically native American expression, and music theatre, another American development. And if we succeed with this, together with our efforts at outreach, if we are able to include those who wish to participate in our type of music-making even though they may not have had a prior opportunity to do so, then we will have lived up to our responsibility and fulfilled our mission."

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