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Stony Brook Music Hits All the Right Notes

Emersons 1

Celebrating 50 years of outstanding teaching, learning, and musicianship, Stony Brook University’s Department of Music can boast of outsize impact on the cultural scene worldwide. From opera stars to eminent musicologists, Stony Brook has spawned an impressive roster of talent that’s charting new territory in sound and performance.

Eugene Drucker
Artist-in-Residence and founding member of the Emerson String Quartet Eugene Drucker works with a violin student in Stony Brook University’s music department.

“We have justifiable pride in our notable faculty and 2,039 alumni who have fanned out throughout the world, performing in pre-eminent ensembles; teaching at prestigious institutions; creating, performing and studying music; and serving in important administrative capacities,” Department of Music Chair Perry Goldstein said.

A prime example is the world-renowned Emerson String Quartet — in residence at Stony Brook since 2002 — which turns 40 this year. The University will mark both anniversaries through a series of special events and performances that illuminate the accomplishments of its world-class faculty and students, past and present.

The festivities kick off on Dec. 7 when the Emersons perform the second of three concerts scheduled this year at Staller Center for the Arts. A panel discussion with the ensemble — which has won nine Grammy Awards and the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize —will precede the concert in the Melville Library, where Quartet memorabilia will be on display.

Then on Dec. 9, Christine Goerke ’94 — the Metropolitan Opera star regarded by many as the leading Wagnerian soprano of our time — will join the Stony Brook Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Stony Brook faculty member Timothy Long in the Department of Music’s 50th Anniversary Concert, the proceeds of which will benefit Stony Brook Opera.

Christine Goerke
Soprano Christine Goerke ’94 (Photo: Arielle Doneson)

“It should come as no surprise that performers such as Christine Goerke and the Emerson String Quartet have made their mark on the musical world,” Goldstein said. Their stories, as well as those of several other prominent SBU musical personalities, shed light on Stony Brook’s thriving music scene.

“The Best String Quartet in the World”
Performing approximately 80 concerts per year in some of the most prestigious venues in the world — including Carnegie Hall in New York, Konzerthaus in Vienna and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London — the Emerson String Quartet is considered one of the three most prominent and accomplished American string quartets of the past 50 years (the Guarneri Quartet and Juilliard String Quartet are the other two), and one of the five great string quartets internationally of the past 100 years.

Inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2010, the Emerson Quartet has made dozens of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and Sony, won three Gramophone Awards and has garnered a number of honors, such as being named Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year.

Leon Fleisher, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chair in Piano at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, called them “arguably the best string quartet in the world,” an opinion shared by pianist Emmanuel Ax, who wrote, “for a quarter century, the Emerson String Quartet has been the most celebrated and influential quartet not only in the United States but in the entire world.”

This season, expanding their longtime roles as faculty and mentors at Stony Brook, the ensemble has established the Emerson String Quartet Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences.  The function of the Institute will be to provide rigorous training for excellent string quartets.  Members of the Emerson String Quaret—violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins—will be joined by the quartet’s ex-cellist, David Finckel, to coach and mentor student string quartets.

Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet in concert with doctoral candidate Hsin-Chiao Liao

Christina Goerke’s Long Island Success Story
Famed soprano Christina Goerke might be the quintessential Long Island – and Stony Brook — success story. She grew up in Medford, NY — a stone’s throw from the university — enrolling here in 1989 and studying with celebrated voice teacher Elaine Bonazzi. Goerke’s talent was apparent early on: She sang Fiordiligi in a Stony Brook Opera production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Asteria in a production of Handel’s Tamerlano — a rare honor for an undergraduate.

Now 47, Goerke made a splash in Handel’s Alcina for the New York City Opera in 2003 and became the reigning American dramatic soprano who took on Strauss and Wagner roles.

Her star continues to ascend. This past year, she burnished her golden reputation as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung at the Canadian Opera Company — a triumphant performance on which the Opera News heaped lavish praise: “Christine Goerke is the greatest Brünnhilde of our time.

Christine Goerke sings “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo

Winning Laurels
Goerke and the Emersons bring star power to campus, but the Department of Music had already built an outstanding reputation in three major branches of study: performance, music composition and history-theory/ethnomusicology.

The Department’s excellence was recognized last year through the coveted M-Prize, a chamber arts competition established in 2016 at the University of Michigan and offering a grand prize of $100,000.

Ensembles associated with Stony Brook took the top two awards in the M-Prize’s inaugural year. The Calidore String Quartet, which was in residence at Stony Brook and coached and mentored by the Emerson String Quartet, won the grand prize, and Yarn/Wire, an ensemble consisting of two pianists and two percussionists who met when they were students in Stony Brook’s Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) program, won first prize in their category.

Musical accolades continued later that year when Rachel Schutz ’16, a doctoral student in performance, won first prize in the 44th Annual National Association of Teachers of Singers competition in Chicago.

The Calidore Quartet performs for the M-Prize jury.

Composers and Performers
A Stony Brook degree in music has been the key first step in numerous stellar careers.

Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir
Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir

Icelandic cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, who received a DMA in 2014, has performed with famed violinist Itzhak Perlman and members of the Emerson, Guarneri and Cavani quartets, and has appeared as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Toronto and Iceland symphonies.

Thorsteinsdóttir is also cellist in the Seattle-based chamber music group Frequency, and has been a faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle since 2015.

Egyptian horn player Amr Selim, DMA ’16, has pocketed a number of chamber music competition prizes, embarked on recording projects —  such as his 2016 collaboration with composer and vibraphonist Eldad Tarmu ’12, ‘15 —  and performed in a number of fabled venues, such as the Lincoln and Kaufman Centers in New York City and the Silicon Valley Music Festival.

He is currently assistant professor of music at American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

Another alumnus, Phil Salathé, who earned his PhD in music composition in 2014, said he is grateful for Stony Brook’s breadth of course offerings. A visiting assistant professor at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music since 2016, Salathé said he appreciated the opportunity to teach composition to undergraduate students — something not always offered at universities.

For some Stony Brook alumni, the path to a career in music takes unexpected turns.

Andrew Schulman graduated in 1975 and achieved success as the founder/artistic director of the Abaca String Band. He has appeared throughout the United States and Europe in diverse venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and The Improv in New York City to the Royal Albert Hall in London.

But his life has been punctuated by narrow escapes from tragedy. For example, he had a 20-year steady engagement performing as a solo guitarist at Windows on the World — the restaurant housed on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. He was scheduled to play there on Sept. 11, 2001 — the day the towers came down — but the event was cancelled the day before.

Fast forward to July 2009: Schulman had undergone major surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Immediately following the operation, he went into anaphylactic shock and landed in the Surgical ICU minutes later, clinically dead. He was resuscitated and put into a medically induced coma and given little chance of survival. His wife, knowing that he loves music more than anything, suggested that his favorite Bach piece, “St. Matthew Passion,” play on his iPod.

Schulman awoke from his coma and that event became the subject of his book Waking the Spirit and documentary Andrew and Wendy, and led to his pioneering certification as a medical musician for critically ill patients.

Today Schulman is the Medical Musician/Critical Care at Berkshire Medical Center, which is in music country, just down the road from Tanglewood. He credits his Stony Brook education as essential for providing the right balance needed when playing in an ICU setting.

“Music can be very healing and soothing but if not done properly, it can be very agitating to critically ill patients and therefore dangerous,” he said. “You need to balance the skills of a concert musician with an understanding of diverse musical styles in addition to your medical training.”

Andrew Schulman performs Ravel’s Pavane For A Dead Princess with the Abaca String Band

Another Stony Brook performer who has found healing qualities in music is Ju Hyeon Han, who became the first blind singer to be cast in a leading role in an American conservatory or university opera production.

The production was Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, a challenging work undertaken by Stony Brook Opera and staged at the Staller Center Main Stage this past spring. Ju Hyeon, who is in her fourth year of a DMA in Vocal Performance degree, took on the major role of Female Chorus, which “speaks” throughout the opera for the female characters.

For Ju Hyeon, who lost her sight as an infant, it represented the fulfillment of a life’s dream.

“I feel so honored that Stony Brook gave me this amazing opportunity,” she said. “So many people told me that it would never happen, that opera would be impossible for me and I shouldn’t even try.”

Musicologists, Ethnomusicologists and Theorists
Stony Brook’s faculty in history-theory and ethnomusicology have been cited for their openness to new approaches. Their pioneering work combines rigorous standards of research and close attention to the music itself with awareness of the larger cultural context in which music exists.

One beneficiary of Stony Brook’s innovative approach is Theo Cateforis, ’93, ‘00, a PhD in music history and an associate professor of music history and cultures at Syracuse University. He is the author of several books that address popular culture, including Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s (University of Michigan, 2011) and The Rock History Reader, Second Edition (Routledge, 2012).

“I arrived here thinking I might study art or ‘serious’ concert music but through an eye-opening course with Peter Winkler, I soon found out that there was an entire interdisciplinary realm of popular music studies that I could pursue,” he said.

Another alumnus who made a name for himself in the popular music vein is Jason Hanley ’93, ’95, ’11, who joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH, and was promoted to vice president of education and visitor engagement in 2015.

“Working in a place like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there is a constant need to think about music from multiple viewpoints, sometimes even during a single day,” said Hanley, who explained that he might be teaching a class to third-graders on the roots of rock and roll in the morning, a college-level course in the afternoon, and at night conducting an interview with a Hall of Fame inductee in front of a live audience.

 “I always encourage my staff members to think about music the same way I learned how to at Stony Brook — from all sides — as a performer, creator and scholar,” he said.

Jason Hanley interviews Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Womack

Distinguished Faculty
Stony Brook’s performance faculty are a Who’s Who of practicing musicians. In addition to the Emerson String Quartet, the University is home to pianist Gilbert Kalish, whose discography numbers more than 100 recordings.  Faculty perform in pre-eminent ensembles: Two of its faculty, bassist Blake Hinson and harpist Nancy Allen, are members of the New York Philharmonic. Two more, trumpeter Kevin Cobb and trombonist Michael Powell, are members of the celebrated American Brass Quintet. Flutist Carol Wincenc is a Grammy-nominated soloist and also performs as part of the New York Woodwind Quintet. Three others, clarinetist Alan Kay, bassoonist Frank Morelli and hornist David Jolley, perform with the wind quintet Windscape.

Several Stony Brook faculty are members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Violist Nicholas Cords performs in Yo-Yo Ma’s popular Silk Road Ensemble. Harpsichordist Arthur Haas performs with the Baroque ensemble Aulos and was a 2012 winner of the Thomas Binkley Award for outstanding achievement in performance and scholarship by the director of a university or college early music ensemble. Eduardo Leandro conducts the New York New Music Ensemble.

Composers Matthew Barnson and Sheila Silver are both winners of the Guggenheim Award, an honor given to roughly only a dozen composers each year. They are members of a composition faculty whose works are performed by some of the world’s leading groups, in storied venues from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and in such international venues as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Amr Selim
Horn player Amr Selim, DMA ’16

Student Accomplishments, Past and Present
This powerhouse faculty attracts top students, who take their places in leading ensembles throughout the world, and on faculties and in administrative positions at leading institutions. Stony Brook alumni teach at higher education institutions such as the University of Michigan, UCLA, Syracuse University, Princeton, The Eastman School of Music, the University of Washington, and abroad at the University of Melbourne, McGill University, and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (United Kingdom), among dozens of other institutions.

They perform in the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera Orchestra of Chicago, Calgary and Mexico Philharmonic Orchestras. They are members of the Shanghai String Quartet, the Fitzwilliams String Quartet, and perform in such early music ensembles as The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Collegium Musiccum Den Haag.

They also serve in important administrative positions. Fred Bronstein ’86 is Dean of the renowned Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Carlos Conde ’11 is chancellor of the Puerto Rico Conservatory. Bärli Nugent ’03 and Adam Meyer ’08 serve as assistant dean and associate dean respectively at the Juilliard School.

Violist Jesus Rodolfo Rodriguez is a current performing student. Pursuing a Doctor of Music Arts, he has just released a recording of music composed by 20th century German composer Paul Hindemith. Rodriguez made his debut as a soloist a couple of years ago, performing Bartok’s Viola Concerto.

Ju Hyeon Han
Ju Hyeon Han sings the national anthem at Stony Brook University’s 57th Commencement, May 2017.

The Department of Music also embraces popular culture, as epitomized by MA/PhD student Matt Brounley. He has designed and taught a class in “Exploring Hip Hop,” tracing the history and legacy of hip-hop music in New York City.

“Our focus on contemporary music sets us apart and a degree from Stony Brook sends a message to the musician community that you are well-versed in the newest musical styles,” Brounley said.

In the end, great performers, scholars, and composers are drawn to and stay at an institution because of the talented faculty and students around them. Philip Setzer, violinist in the Emerson String Quartet, has written: “The Emerson String Quartet has been at Stony Brook for a number of reasons: the quality of fellow faculty, leading performers, composers and scholars in the world of music, and the very high level of students.”

If the current crop of undergraduate and graduate students is any indication, the next 50 years of Stony Brook’s musical contributions to the world will be even more noteworthy than its first.

— Glenn Jochum

Undergraduates Apply Now for Music
Graduate Students Apply Now for Music

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