Archive for Thursday, August 25, 2005

Altering tradition

Reforms debated at arts institute with deep legacy

August 25, 2005


— Donine Pettys listened raptly to hundreds of young musicians playing Lizst's "Les Preludes" in an outdoor amphitheater as twilight cast shadows across a nearby lake and a gull soared overhead.

"This is my annual pilgrimage," said Pettys, a former teacher at Interlochen Center for the Arts who has attended its summer concerts for more than 30 years. "I come back every year for my renewal."

Tradition is deeply ingrained at Interlochen, one of the nation's foremost training grounds for aspiring artists. But change is the buzzword these days on the tree-shaded, 1,200-acre campus in the northwestern Lower Peninsula, where the ranks of distinguished alumni include opera legend Jessye Norman, journalist Mike Wallace and singers Norah Jones, Josh Groban and Jewel.

Administrators are revising programs, rethinking longtime customs and making personnel changes that have drawn praise and catcalls within the close-knit community. The goal is to retain Interlochen's historical mission while adjusting to a changing society and become more financially secure, says Jeffrey Kimpton, named Interlochen's seventh president in 2003.

"I think we had become a little bit complacent," Kimpton said in an interview.

"People expect more today. Parents are getting ready to invest their most precious asset - their child - plus some money along the way. They're looking for high-quality teachers, a well-run, well-managed program, a good-looking property with the right kinds of resources."

Expanded offerings

Founded in 1928 as the National High School Orchestra Camp, Interlochen now includes the summer camp, a high school academy, a day school for younger students, two public radio stations and a year-round performance festival. Aside from music, the curriculum includes creative writing, dance, theater, visual arts and academics.

The nonprofit center operates on a $28 million annual budget and provides $6.3 million in financial aid. Its $34 million endowment is small by industry standards. Tuition provides 85 percent of earned income.

Costs are rising and facilities need upgrades, prompting a quest for new revenue sources. One got started this summer: continuing education for adults in subjects such as chamber music and photography; a motion picture arts program - the first major addition to the curriculum in 30 years - begins this fall.

Fighting a slide

But administrators stirred passions by tinkering with the venerable summer camp, which draws more than 2,000 youths ages 8 through 18 and features competitive ensembles such as the World Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Despite its sterling reputation, Kimpton said that enrollment was in a decade-long slide when he arrived. The student-faculty ratio was two-to-one.

Thirty-seven faculty members, 29 in the music department, weren't asked to return this year. Critics contend the total was higher, but Kimpton said there's always turnover and some teachers left voluntarily. Either way, this year's music faculty was around 100, down from 140 in 2004.

The housecleaning wounded feelings. Some of the departed teachers had been around for decades.

"If you take away those people who were the embodiment, the spirit, who made the place work and gave it the magic it had, you have removed a good part of what Interlochen is," said Rex Conner, an alumnus and youth symphony conductor in Charleston, S.C.

Another change: The summer session, previously eight weeks long, was shortened to six, a concession to multitasking youngsters' increasingly crowded schedules.

"I wanted to come to Interlochen before, but eight weeks was virtually impossible," said Jonathan Nitz, a 16-year-old bassoon player from Clarksville, Md., who attended camp this year before rushing home for marching band practice in early August.

The reforms prompted online debate among Interlochen alumni.

Drew McManus, an arts management consultant who studied tuba as a camper in the 1980s, wrote articles for that accused administrators of lowering standards, which they denied.

"We're not destroying the institution," said Gerald Fischer, chairman of the board of trustees. "We're adapting it to a world that's changed very significantly."


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