The brainchild of director Felicity Coltman, the Center employs a dual teaching-performance approach to integrate technical proficiency, theoretical backgrounds, and stylistic breadth into the educational process. Most of the students tend to be from middle and high school - a heartening alternative to public schools in these arts-unfriendly times - although Coltman notes that she sees more and more adults behind the stands. "It's quite a venue for someone who may have played in a band in high school, haven't since, and don't know where to go," Colt-man says. She is particularly proud of the fact that many students have come full circle, passing through the Center
as students and coming back to teach.
Since 1983, the Center has made a priority of international exchange, hosting students from Austria, France, Germany, and Peru. Austin students and faculty have crossed the Atlantic six times. In 1993, a group of 17 students and four teachers performed in Koblenz, Germany, a sister city of Austin; this is the third year in a row Center personnel will return, adding some dates in Italy as well. Professional European acts join Americans in the Center's various performance series, ranging from Dallas' Hubbard Chamber Ensemble to Polish pianist Pawl Szryzpek. The Maia Quartet, currently the graduate string quartet in residence at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and one of the Center's most important visitors, itself sums up the Center's show-and-do ethos: during a visit last year, the members held an intensive two-week residency in local public schools, performing and explaining a repertoire ranging from Mozart to Jimi Hendrix (Kronos Quartet's transcription of Purple Haze) for approximately 2,000 students. "During their performance at the Children's Museum, the children - young children - were silent, they were so enthralled," Coltman says.
In terms of teaching, the Center follows the model of a typical school, offering an academic year program and a two-week, intensive summer workshop. In the yearlong program, held at downtown's Central Presbyterian Church, up to 60 students of piano, woodwinds, and strings - "and occasionally voice," Colman adds - play in ensembles and take a theory class each week. The practice is put into action with two recitals, as well as monthly performances in retirement centers. The summer program, based at the First Unitarian Church, focuses on practice via immersion. This year's workshop - presently running through July 7 - has as its guest instructors Beth Oakes, a former Center student and Maia violist; University of Wisconsin pianist Elizabeth Gutierrez; and Caroline Klemperer-Green, a violinist from Indiana. "We like to encourage not only potential professional musicians, but anyone with an interest in music so they can become educated listeners," Coltman says.
Unlike traditional music schools, however, the Center takes a noncompetitive tack in its teaching style. "Kids today are so rushed and so pushed all the time, even the little ones come stressed," Coltman says. "If they can find some way to ground themselves or balance themselves through music, then we've achieved what I would like. We do have little kids playing with big kids or adults some times."
The Intimate Concerts series - subscription performances held in private homes - forms the backbone of the Center's performance outreach; concerts by faculty and visiting artists form its nervous system. The Center has a regular retinue of European artists such as violinist Miranda Dale of the London Philharmonia and London Chamber Orchestra, and cellist Nicholas Jones, a moving force behind the annual Music Fest in Wales.
Ronald Crutcher, the new director of the UT School of Music, will sit in with Center performances next season, assisting in the Center's goal of making inroads within Austin's frequently insular musical culture. "For a long time, the university was over there and the rest of the city was over there," Coltman observes. "We're absolutely delighted to have [Crutcher] bringing the community and the university together."
Coltman founded the Center in 1981 to rectify the underdog status of chamber music and promote community among the artists. "I've always felt that pianists are lonely people," she says. "Wind and string instruments play in large ensembles - a chance to play with other people - and go on tour together. It just seemed to me that it would be so nice to combine piano and other instruments.
"Some of the most wonderful music is chamber music, and many music students were only exposed to it as graduate students," she continues. "There was just no exposure to young people for chamber music." Her European connections and travels have provided the Center with an unusually diverse repertoire, and this has been a goal from the beginning. "I have a very large library of chamber music that I've acquired over the years," she says. "We were looking for stuff that was easy to play, and found a lot of early music and music by lesser composers. There's also a lot of contemporary music being written, especially in England and Eastern Europe for young people."
Not to say that only contemporary music in a classical vein falls within the Center's repertoire. Jazz and modern American programming has appeared from time to time, as well as commissioned pieces by composers such as UT's Don Grantham. "We had all Austin composers for a concert a few years back, which is some thing we will probably repeat sometime," Coltman says. Next year, the Intimate Concerts will program moderns like African-American composer William Grant Still, Grantham's UT colleague Dan Welcher, and an evening of British music. One "breakout" program will combine arias from several different operas, along with instrumental variations on those themes.
Coltman herself, through training and example, embodies a global approach to music education. A native of South Africa, she was schooled by English musicians and received diplomas from Trinity College and the Royal School of Music in London. She came to America in 1966 and received a bachelor's degree in piano performance from the University of Kansas in 1969. She wants to combine the best aspects of both the American and English pedagogical systems in the Center's approach, each of which reflect their native culture.
"I would say that the English system stresses musicianship a lot, and I think the American system is more competitive," Coltman says. For instance, during a visit to Iceland a few years ago, "One of our students asked where an Icelandic student stood in relation to the rest of class. He didn't have a clue; he didn't care. She was intrigued because she was always very aware of where she stood."
Art aside, Coltman's goals for the center concern the practical things all independent art organizations face. She hopes to someday have an endowment to provide the stability that yearly grants and private contributions cannot, and for the Center to have its own teaching facility and recital quarters. "My dream would be a beautiful old home with poetry books lying about," she offers. "A real cultural center."
Well, sometimes the surroundings should rise to the level of the music. n
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