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More on “Quality”

August 1st, 2007

In the previous post on “Quality” I mentioned a number of orchestras and museums which I thought represented an exceptional level of excellence and suggested that this had a lot to do with the way people worked with each other and the attention given to recruitment. There is another issue and that is the assertion one hears from time to time that involvement of young people in various branches of the arts such as learning music has spin-off effects in improving other abilities such as math and analytical skills. The jury is still out on this particular issue as I understand it. But the points which emerge are of general signficance.

Here are three items which are about young people and the arts. And there is a fourth item which is not about young people but the Director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Philippe de Montebello.

The first item is an interview with British producer/director Michael Waldman and work with disadvantaged, troubled young people aged between 15 and 19, and their involvement in the ballet based on Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”. Through this they achieved amazing performances and advanced their personal development as well. “A young black woman who was aged 15 who was in a rehearsal session early on, was asked to talk about herself… She said, ‘I’m told that when I was 2 my Dad murdered my Mum’. In rehearsal she showed herself to be focused, energetic, disciplined, with abilities to put her feet in front of each other, musically, and was cast in the character role of Lady Capulet, the mother of Juliet. And when it came to the final performance, the ballet reviewers who came to this said she was as good as the Bolshoi’s Lady Capulet.” (Professors Milbrey W. McLaughlin and Shirley Brice Heath of Stanford University have stories of a similar nature; see the page on museum issues)

The second item concerns the astonishing orchestral project for young people in Caracas, Venezuela, El Sistema – a remarkable project which uses Beethoven and Brahms to “save” the children of the barrios. Earlier this year, the musical directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic – arguably among the best orchestras in America – became vacant. The orchestra chose 26 year old El Sistema trained Gustavo Dudamel after a couple of guest appearances during which the Venezuelan shot what the orchestra’s president Deborah Borda called ‘contagious joy’ through the seasoned musicians. ‘We had combustion,’ she said. ‘We knew something remarkable had happened.’

The third is about partnerships at American art museums which seek to find whether art appreciation has spin-offs in other areas. The US Department of Education offers a grant program to support local education agencies and “organisations with arts expertise in replicating or adapting ways to integrate arts disciplines with a key goal to improve students’ academic performance, including their skills in creating, performing and responding to the arts”. A number of museums involved in the project have shown significant improvements in critical skills.

The last item concens the “Met” in New York. (By the way, fifty percent of all private money for the arts is raised in New York!) There are many rumours, denied, of the impending retirement of Philippe de Montebello, 71 year old director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the last 30 years. In “Twilight of the Sun King” by Charles McGrath (New York Times July 29, 2007) there are some comments about de Montebello and what I think makes museums outstanding. We are enlightened about some of the ways in which the Met distinguishes itself. It has a lot to do with the culture de Montebello promotes.

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