The 2005 Honorees

By Clair W. Van Ausdall

For two decades he has administered the affairs of what is very possibly the most prestigious and admired institution of music, dance, and drama in the world—The Juilliard School. Now, as the institution celebrates its centennial, he has instigated a vast renovation of the Lincoln Center campus to further his goal of "making the arts come alive!"

On Monday, August 23, 2004, Joseph W. Polisi was celebrating the first day of his 21st year as president, maintaining still the appearance of an eager long-distance runner. Or, to paint a more precise image, the lean and fit look of a professionally qualified bassoonist who once ran the New York Marathon. He has, with his wife, Elizabeth, raised three little Polisis (one of whom will soon be married, another who graduated from Yale last spring, and a third who plays football for his prep school in Connecticut). And, all the while, he has administered the affairs of what is very possibly the most prestigious and admired institution of music, dance, and drama in the world —The Juilliard School.

Polisi comes by all this naturally. His own father was principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic for many years, his mother was a dancer who met her musician husband while in the corps de ballet at Radio City and later gave dance lessons at home. (Polisi ruefully recollects performing a tap dance in third grade to "Davy Crockett" under her tutelage.) Young Joseph studied bassoon with his father, having first intended to take up the cello ("String students seemed to me to be smarter than wind players"). But he finally pursued instead a degree in political science and international relations at the University of Connecticut and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He never stopped playing the bassoon or admiring it, though he confesses that he regrets "all the music that was never composed for it."

He missed the world of music so much while laboring in the more pragmatic fleshpots of politics and diplomacy that he entered Yale University to work on his doctorate in bassoon, and there one of his mentors, Dean Philip Nelson, recognized his gifts and put him increasingly to work, in alumni affairs, as registrar, and finally as the executive officer of the School of Music. The Monday after he had played his doctoral recital and passed his orals, he seized the opportunity to apply for the deanship of Manhattan School of Music and was off like a shot.

In his brief tenure at MSM, he beefed up the liberal-arts program, energized the faculty, and won the hearts of students by increased scholarships, not to mention such inspirations as an allschool Rite of Spring day that began with a live orchestral performance of that work (still a favorite of his) and proceeded onwards to other events in the neighborhood up near Columbia University, culminating in a mini-marathon run around Riverside Drive that he led himself. About a month or two later, Polisi entered the New York Marathon and grimly stayed the course, though at the finish, "I was practically dead!" (That memory didn't stop him from organizing another Rite of Spring four-lap Challenge run at Juilliard in 1989.)

He has always been a baseball fan, like his father (who modestly hoped to be perceived someday as "the Lou Gehrig of the New York Philharmonic"). Polisi played ball himself as a youngster (shortstop, first base, and second base "until my arm fell off"), umpired non-professionally, and then coached a lot of Little League teams.

Following his Manhattan School stint, he accepted the top administrative job of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, remaining for a single academic year before applying for the presidency of Juilliard, where he became the sixth in a distinguished line that included Frank Damrosch, Ernest Hutcheson, John Erskine, Peter Mennin, and, previous to Mennin, the composer-educator who was to become Polisi's mentor and friend, William Schuman. Schuman's piano may be seen in the Polisi office, a picture of Schuman has an honored place on the wall, and Schuman's name comes up every few minutes, no matter what the conversation.

Many of Polisi's educational philosophies derive from or were influenced by Schuman's iconoclastic remake of the Juilliard curriculum upon his arrival, back in 1945. Among the many inventive Schuman notions was the creation in 1946 of the Juilliard String Quartet, which soon made an historic recording of all six Bartók quartets and also began a long association with Elliott Carter. It was after a concert of Carter's four quartets, by the Juilliard Quartet in honor of their 45th anniversary in 1991, that Polisi hosted a reception for several hundred open-jawed admirers. He himself had listened intently, scores in hand, throughout a demanding evening that lasted until well after 11:00. Then he recognized with a gulp that he must greet the composer and offer some appreciative remarks. "After hearing and following those magnificent but rigorous works for three hours," Polisi reminisces, "I was 'in the twilight zone,' almost. All I could manage to squeak out was, 'Elliott, your quartets are . . . incredible!' Mr. Carter looked interestedly at me like the gentleman he is and replied: 'No one has ever before called my quartets "incredible," 'he ventured, and then said after a pondering pause, "Maybe they are." Immediately all the reception guests began whooping lustily, and my tongue-tied crisis-moment was over."

President Polisi has broken much new educational ground in his own ways as well. With Schuman's counsel he set in motion the Juilliard American Music Recording Institute, to keep available the music of contemporary composers, and he has sought to put Juilliard's divisions of drama and dance on an equal footing with music. He has emphasized anew the importance of liberal arts in a modern conservatory curriculum, programming considerably more than the 25 percent New York State insists upon. (A worried board member was afraid that Juilliard students wouldn't find time to enter competitions because they would be immured in the library instead.) And Polisi is glowingly proud of the leading position Juilliard currently takes in outreach programs. "Of course we fund them a little bit," he says, "but it's the students themselves who do the most work and benefit the most, playing and dancing and acting for senior citizens, say, or for hospital patients, or impoverished children in Florida, or women prisoners on Riker's Island. The students are always deeply moved, and their audiences are deeply moved, too; maybe not for the traditional intellectual reasons, but the power of the arts is there, all right." He continues: "Actors, dancers, musicians . . . that's another thing I've tried to foster—multi-disciplinary work. When it 'cooks,' it's very exciting. Making the arts come alive!"

He himself inspires enthusiasm just by his own enthusiasm . . .for wide-ranging arts education, for books (he is an inveterate reader, mostly of history and biography, as is his wife, Elizabeth, who in the past has taught French), for music ("I go to three or four concerts almost every day here at school and then listen in the car on the way home"), for sports ("though I pay attention to football mostly when my son is playing") . . . .

Polisi is celebrating 20 years as Juilliard's president almost concurrently with the centennial of the institution itself, which dates from 1905, when it was known as the Institute of Musical Art. There are many plans afoot, including a vast renovation by Diller and Scafidio of the original Pietro Belluschi building that will add 40,000 square feet and project the school even further east, to Broadway, and will significantly alter the look of Lincoln Center. It should be finished in 2008 or 2009.

Twenty years is a long time in a high-intensity, high-visibility job such as piloting the thrust of an internationally known school like Juilliard. But Polisi calls one's attention to the planning document he put out in 1998. "We did some things, we didn't do others. Now there's so much new to do for the future!" One is reminded of Delacroix's remark, "What makes men of genius, or, rather, what they make, is not new ideas; it is that one idea—which possesses them—that what has been said has still not been said enough."

Asked what he might do "after Juilliard," Polisi snaps briskly, "After? Oh, I haven't had a chance to think about that." A moment later, with a grin, "Commissioner of Baseball, maybe?" Life indeed seems to have led him, as Nature always led Wordsworth, "from joy to joy." Why shouldn't baseball be next?

Clair W. Van Ausdall, an itinerant laborer in the vineyards of classical music, has at various times been a pianist, an accompanist, an organist and choir director, a cellist, a teacher, a record company A & R man, a publicist, a critic, a music annotator, and, most recently, editor of
Chamber Music magazine.




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