ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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
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
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."