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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Dr. Charles Kaufman

Dr. Charles Kaufman

I'm a musicologist by trade," says Dr. Charles Kaufman, but one can tell at once by the amused expression in his eyes and from the magisterial surroundings — we are sitting in his office on West 85th Street in New York — that music history is but one of the many dynamic dimensions of the man. Charles Kaufman — "Call me Chuck," he says easily to those working with him — is chief executive of The Mannes College of Music. His title was "president" before the prestigious music school became a division of The New School for Social Research in 1989, at which time he became "dean," but no one who has any knowledge of the peppery Kaufman (who looks like a cross between a young Cardinal O'Connor and Telly Savalas) can doubt that Mannes was his mission, both before and after the merger.

A native New Yorker, Kaufman grew up in a household in which everyone loved and made music. ("A few years ago, my mother came up with a report card from second grade on which the teacher had commented: 'Charles talks a great deal, but he is very good at singing."') He studied piano and early on developed a great interest in ancient instruments, an enthusiasm that stood him in good stead at college (Syracuse University and Columbia) and post-graduate school (New York University). At N.Y.U. he studied with Gustave Reese, a scholar who became not only his mentor but who clearly helped in setting the very high professional standards that Kaufman has held all his life. ("Gustave Reese came into the room; I stood up. If I was wearing a hat, I took it off. He was astonishing, a mountain of culture, probity, integrity, respect for validity, truth and exactitude.") During his college years, he worked at various businesses while furthering his musical skills — he began specializing in organology — and wavered between following his father's counsel to do something "practical" and pursuing a career in music. Soon upon graduation, however, he made two decisions that were fundamental to his professional future: he would eschew a life in business in favor of his musical pursuits; but the path he wished to pursue in music would not be as a performer. ("If you don't deal with reality, you're in big trouble. I came to the conclusion relatively early in the game that my receptors were a lot better than my senders.") He began teaching at N.Y.U. and subsequently at Hunter College.

One day in 1974, a spokesman for The Mannes College inquired if he would be willing to come there to teach history and some other things. When he later asked why he was fingered for this slot, he was told that they had inquired all over town and his name kept cropping up. While he was flattered, he had little inkling in those halcyon days of what was to lie in store for him. ("I was here about six months when I knew that this was the place for me. I just loved it, the nature of the community, the way in which people related to one another.")

Mannes is, in fact, a unique institution for a broad variety of reasons. It was the personal dedication of its founders, David and Clara Mannes, that gave the school its unmistakable profile and philosophy from the very beginning. The Manneses had been a well-known violin-piano duo early in the century. In addition, David had been concertmaster of Walter Damrosch's New York Symphony Orchestra as well as director of the Third Street Music School Settlement. No doubt Mannes's highly personal mixture of humanism and professionalism was potent enough to shape the school's profile for the 75 years of its existence. Established in 1916 as the David Mannes Music School, it was originally on East 70th Street but grew so rapidly that larger premises (in the form of three adjacent brownstone houses on East 74th Street) were purchased just three years later. Leopold Mannes, son of the founders, took over as President in the '40s. In 1953, the Board of Regents authorized the granting of a Bachelor Degree and the name was officially changed to The Mannes College of Music. (A Master of Music program was added in 1980.)

Throughout its considerable history, Mannes has been in financial trouble. For some years, Leopold had been able to keep the school going with his royalties from Eastman-Kodak. (He was the coinventor, with his friend Leopold Godowsky, of the Kodachrome process of color photography.) But when that income source vanished, the prognosis for the school's survival seemed bleak. By 1975, just months after Kaufman's engagement, the true nature of the College's financial plight became evident. A Board of Trustees was in place that had neither the will nor the know-how to continue the school. The President at the time was the celebrated American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens who quit after a huge brawl with the Board, to be followed by someone specifically hired to dismantle the place or generate a merger. "The faculty has always been, and to this day remains, very effective in the management of the school," Kaufman explained, but no one bothered consulting it. "There was a pitched battle between the President and Board on the one side, and the faculty on the other. I am not a turn-the-other-cheeker and made no secret of my feelings. It all came to a head in 1978 when there was an attempt made to merge The Mannes College with the Manhattan School of Music. Our faculty raised money to hire a lawyer. It was a very difficult and unpleasant year." (Suddenly there is a great twinkle in his eye as he points with pride to a framed document on the wall.) "On that wall over there hangs a letter which fires me and 23 of my faculty colleagues. Neither the President nor the Board had any idea of how we regard this school. We forced a hearing before a Select Committee of the State Board of Regents, the result of which was that the Regents threw out the entire Mannes Board and we had won."

The victory, which demonstrates the stuff that Kaufman is made of, was not the end, but only the latest chapter in the ongoing financial crises of The Mannes College. Finding himself appointed President, Kaufman realized the need to move out of the old and deteriorating building. (He has an eerie command of detail and takes pleasure in regaling unsuspecting guests with minute technical descriptions of everything from building materials to instrument building.) The new quarters on West 85th Street were occupied in February 1984. "On my first day in the new job, I had to go to the Chemical Bank to discuss a foreclosure action against the College. It was a big mess. We owed fortunes and had $1,500 in the bank account. I explained to them that if they foreclosed, the only thing I could promise them — and I'd swear it on my life — was some of the most hideously adverse publicity that they could imagine. Six months later, we were able to discharge our debts. Remember, I had had considerable business experience and felt right at home in this type of situation. But nevertheless, I came to realize that, in the final quarter of this century, there was no way that a very small arts institution was going to survive without an endowment. But we had no endowment and any professional fund raiser will tell you that the most difficult kind of money to raise is endowment funds, especially for an institution with a financial track record like ours. But we were able to come out of it in relatively short order by martialing our management skills and raising the public image of the school."

Although fund raising had increased six-fold within seven years of Kaufman's appointment to head the school, the feeling became pervasive that they had reached a plateau past which they were not likely to go in the City of New York. The New School had made several prior overtures and, after hanging in for a decade past the "Great Rebellion," the decision to merge was reached, but the fiercely independent spirit of the Mannes of yore hovers in every classroom, office, and corridor.

What makes Mannes so unusual? First of all, its minuscule size compared to the musico-academic Goliaths interspersed throughout the country. (There are about 230 people in the college division, close to 500 in the extension division, and 412 in the preparatory program.) All the kids enrolled in the undergraduate program anticipate careers as professional musicians upon graduation. "We've always regarded ourselves as a craft shop. Everybody here must take western history and literature, music and art history. We have a huge commitment to chamber music. It is vital, in terms of listening and ensemble, to those who will become orchestral musicians. If you're in this school, you play chamber music. The program in musicianship, theory and analysis is a killer. Schenkerian material was first taught in the U.S. at Mannes, and we had the First International Schenker Symposium here four years ago and the second one is coming this spring. [Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) was an Austrian music theorist who endeavored to derive the basic laws of musical composition from a thoroughgoing analysis of the standard masterworks.] We are totally convinced that the better the ear is trained, the more the student knows about what is happening in the music, the better the performance is going to be."

And what a faculty the small school has assembled! To browse through the Mannes catalogue is to contemplate an astonishing listing of some of the truly great artists in American music-making. It is senseless to pick out any particular personality and it should suffice to say that each of the musical disciplines is covered by a brilliant array of musicians. The faculty, as Kaufman is quick to point out, is clearly performance-oriented, and the ensembles in residence include the Galimir String Quartet, Mannes Trio, and Newman-Oltman Guitar Duo. The excellent Mannes Orchestra is directed by Michael Charry, the Mannes Chorus under Amy Kaiser, and the imaginative Marines Camerata, dedicated to the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, is supervised by Paul Echols. What makes these rich resources even more impressive is the knowledge that they are accessible to so small a student body.

Kaufman speaks about the typical teacher-student relationship at Mannes. "It is extremely intense. These kids feel about their teachers the way I felt about Gus Reese. A lot of practical professional information, in addition to musical and technical counseling, comes from the teachers. We are always concerned with literacy on all levels here. We have just instituted a new course that is required of every entering student. It is basically a course in literacy. It covers the nitty-gritty of American concert music. After all, if they were learning to be financial brokers, they'd be reading the Wall Street Journal every day. Why shouldn't they have the corresponding data about the arts? These kids will have to go out and find jobs. While it's not our responsibility to find jobs for them — we're not an employment agency — it is our responsibility, to the degree that we're able, to make them aware of how one looks for jobs. And we seem to do OK at it. A couple of years ago, we did a five-year track record on our graduates, and about 85% were successfully employed in music. Every kid who first walks in the door thinks he's the next Heifetz or Erica Morini. By the end of the second year, they know that there are a lot of other "Heifetzes" and "Erica Morinis." A lot of these students — especially among the pianists — are going to be teachers. Someone was graduated from here last May and came in to see me the other day. She lives on Long Island and she has 38 piano students and is having to turn people away. Don't forget also that American music education is the best in the world. A lot of these people start out by staffing European orchestras because they're better than their European peers."

With the conviction and enthusiasm that are his trade mark, Kaufman speaks about the glut in some disciplines that has accounted for a drastic drop in enrollments. "There are isostatic market adjustments in every field. We read all over the place that the future for attorneys seems a little grim, and that there are too many lawyers around. Hiring is down. Starting salaries are down. What happens? Enrollment in law schools goes down. But enrollment in conservatories is up. These kids are not stupid. If the word was out that they would all starve to death, they'd find other things to study. But they fully expect to get jobs in their fields."

But his optimism is not Leibnizian and across-the-board. "The worst problem we are facing today is the diminishing involvement of young people in concert music. Mind you, the superstructure of concert life is not going to crack in the near future, but it is in the long run. Ultimately, it's the fault of the population but for the moment, the primary and secondary schools have completely abdicated their responsibility for arts education in this country. For the first time in the history of the country, the kids are receiving no music education at all. So what is it left to? It's left to the streets. And what do you get? Garbage. They pander, and appeal to the kids on the lowest possible level. The philanthropies come in for their share of blame too. They should be sponsoring programs from K[indergarten] through 12, and they're not doing it. If something is not done to reverse the trend, we're going to be in terrible trouble in 15 or 20 years."

How does a school like Mannes serve to bridge the gap between the high-power professional establishment and the lay society? "We have tried on several occasions in the past few years to set up programs in the public schools around here. But teachers have to be paid. 'Labor without profit,' as Ayn Rand said, 'is slavery.' We ran into problems. The schools could not get funding and neither could we. There were bureaucratic difficulties and we ran out of gas because we couldn't afford to maintain it ourselves. The area in which we think we're making a contribution is in the prep school. A lot of conservatories' prep schools accept only people who are assayed to be pre-professionals. Not us. We are still a community-based school guided, especially in the preparatory school, by David and Clara Mannes's principles to develop a cultured and literate future generation by the careful and complete education of all children who have the desire and commitment to learn."

While the third of Mannes's three divisions, the Extension Division, addresses "the needs of adults who wish to pursue music for their own enjoyment as well as professionals who seek to refine their musical skills or add new ones," it is the Preparatory School that has the greatest sociological impact. Its students range from pre-kindergarten through senior high school. From the catalogue: "They come from public, parochial and private schools; the wealthy, middle-class and economically disadvantaged; many different ethnic, racial, cultural and national groups; individuals of great musical promise and those of average ability. All are offered a comprehensive music education; all are united in their curiosity about and their love of music."

Rubbing shoulders with assorted faculty and students on the way out, one gets a distinct feeling of camaraderie, a sense that all who inhabit the fine Federal-style building on West 85th Street are joined in the common commitment to music. Unspoken but equally evident is the belief that they are being led by a musician-administrator whom they can trust and who has been consistently effective in reflecting their deepest beliefs about the role of music in our world.

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