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'Eastman at 100' celebration is amusing — but mindful of mission

Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester.
Emily Hunt for WXXI News
Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester.

The words etched in stone over the doors of the Eastman Theatre and the Eastman School of Music are the kind of reverent architectural décor that often goes unnoticed.

But not Friday morning.

“Today is about celebrating 100 years of the school,” Eastman Dean Jamal Rossi said over the chatter of the crowd in the school’s packed Lowry Hall after a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “But it is also our commitment to Rochester. Those words — ‘Erected for the enrichment of community life’ — we take very seriously. That was what we were founded upon. So we are so thrilled to be a part of this community and contribute to it.”

Eastman’s presence in both the music community, and the Rochester community in general, is immense. The Rochester Music Hall of Fame acknowledged as much when it announced Thursday that it is adding the Eastman School of Music and the Eastman Theatre to the inductees to be honored on May 1, in a ceremony postponed for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A galaxy of local institutional glitterati filled the first row of seats at Friday’s event. Several speakers made reference to those words connecting the school and the community, applying them to not only this weekend of “Eastman Opens the Doors,” but also the entire school year as Eastman celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The “100 Years of Eastman” celebration has been ongoing since August. There is a Women in Music Festival later this month. A symposium on Florence Price, the first Black woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. The Gateways Music Festival for musicians of African-American descent. And there are many, many performances by classical and jazz ensembles throughout the rest of the year.

Friday’s speakers were animated and amusing -- but also mindful of the school’s mission.

Rossi pointed out how Eastman offers programs outside of the school, for everyone from children to senior citizens, and supports organizations such as Foodlink. Referencing the nation’s concern about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Rep. Joe Morelle spoke of the “restorative” power of music.

Eastman emeritus professor and school historian Vince Lenti presented an amusing picture of Eastman opening in 1921 for 104 students, arriving at Main Street on trolleys and streetcars. More than half of those students were there simply to learn how to play an instrument, rather than actually pursue music degrees.

Amid all of the jokes about the size of their framed proclamations, state Sen. Jeremy Cooney spoke of his own connection to the school as a young music student growing up in Rochester. And how “Eastman is a part of my childhood, and part of my future, and hopefully my family’s future.”

All that music stuff aside, as Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said, “I will tell you, it is great for the economy,” citing among other factors the tax base.

One hundred years is time enough to build a complicated story, and the Eastman School of Music is no more immune to life’s inconsistencies than any other institution. The man who built the school into a music-education juggernaut, Howard Hanson, has been described as a kind man who despaired at the act of dropping lobsters into boiling water. And yet, he carried on feuds with fellow composers David Diamond and Aaron Copland, and has been called an anti-Semite who despised homosexuals and jazz.

Now -- large egos and sexual identities aside -- students are playing jazz in the classrooms of the Eastman School of Music. In fact, the only reference on Friday to the large shadow of Hanson was the student brass ensemble that opened the celebration with a short piece that he wrote, “University of Rochester Fanfare.”

So the school has moved on; after 100 years, it is hardly static. The Eastman Centennial Campaign has raised more than $55 million, created 40 new scholarships and commissioned more than 50 new compositions.

“Eastman Opens the Doors” is about the school connecting with the community, with performances earlier this week by Musica Nova, the Eastman Wind Ensemble and pop-up concerts and flash mobs throughout the community.

Friday’s events include a “Perform-a-thon,” in which the public is invited to explore the campus while being serenaded by students, faculty and staff in a wide range of ensembles, some far beyond the traditional thinking often associated with educational institutions.

Also on Friday’s schedule: A 3 p.m. book signing and talk by Lenti. He has just published “Nurturing the Love of Music: Robert Freeman and the Eastman School of Music.” This third volume of his history of the school covers the years that it was under the direction of Freeman, 1973 to 1996.

And the Eastman Studio Orchestra has a 7:30 p.m. Friday concert in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. The program features arrangements by Eastman masters and doctoral students, the premiere of a piece by graduate student and trombonist Andrew Watkins, and film of the Eastman Studio Orchestra of the late 1970s with Rayburn Wright conducting.

Further linking the school to the public is Saturday’s “A Sense of Community: Bach’s Moveable Feast” at one of the most curious museum treasures of Rochester, Artisan Works, 565 Blossom Road. This day of music meets visual arts places 50 musicians from Eastman and Germany’s Freiburg Musikhochschule performing Bach’s “Art of Fugue” in varied ensembles as people walk among the quirky gallery’s 500,000 art objects and curios. The event is broken into two segments: Children and families from 3 to 4 p.m., general admission from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Saturday also offers chamber-music showcases at 3 p.m. in Howard Hanson Hall and 7:30 p.m. in Hatch Recital Hall.

“Eastman Opens its Doors” concludes with a daylong indoor festival, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, on Eastman’s Kodak Hall and Kilbourn Hall stages. Musicians from the Eastman Community Music School will be joined by local orchestras, wind ensembles and choirs. A handful of Eastman-generated premieres will include “Tripping the Light Fantastic,” a 4:30 p.m. performance in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre of a piece written for Rochester chamber ensemble Cordancia and the dance group Biodance.

For more details on the centennial events, go to https://www.rochester.edu/adv/eastman-centennial/events/.

Copyright 2022 WXXI News

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle. He has also been published in Musician and High Times magazines, contributed to WXXI, City newspaper and Post magazine, and occasionally performs spoken-word pieces around town. Some of his haikus written during the Rochester jazz festival were self-published in a book of sketches done by Scott Regan, the host of WRUR’s Open Tunings show. Spevak founded an award-winning barbecue team, The Smokin’ Dopes, and believes Bigfoot is real. His book on the life of a Lake Ontario sailor who survived the sinking of his ship during World War II will be published in April of 2019 by Lyons Press.