Madam Impresario: Susan Wadsworth '58

By Mindy Aloff '69

Violinist Pinchas Zukerman; pianists Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, and Ruth Laredo; soprano Dawn Upshaw: in the intensely competitive world of classical music, these are household names. They also have more in common than a high standard of artistry, perseverance, and luck: all were the beneficiaries of managerial assistance and _essential professional nurturing at the beginning of their careers from a unique nonprofit org anization called Young Concert Artists (YCA). For four decades, YCA has been devoted to "discovering and launching the careers of extraordinary young musicians," in the words of its founder and director, Susan Popkin Wadsworth '58.

In the perilous transition that soloists must make from the conservatory to a professional life in concert and recital halls-a transition that calls on strength of character, social skills, and, sometimes, political savvy quite unrelated to the gift for making music itself-YCA builds crucial bridges, both in practical terms (such as arranging concert dates) and in the ineffable yet indispensable development of morale. YCA guides these artists to connect with the public through a variety of ways, advises them on details of self-presentation and promotion, and, when they are ready to fledge, leads them to commercial management.

Wadsworth and her staff of 12 work today in YCA's bright, spacious offices in Manhattan, a block from Carnegie Hall. During a recent interview with the VQ, she spoke about YCA's operations, her own career path to its founding, and her concerns about the current state of classical music in America from a perspective of having helped to nourish several generations of its finest instrumentalists and singers, as well as a few composers, since YCA's first season in 1961­62.

"Nurturing is kind of the warm and fuzzy part of what we do," she explained. "Sometimes artists are inexperienced. They have to go on the road, and they don't know the protocols. Our only motive is to help them. Our work is very important to their self-esteem and helps to create a feeling of confidence."

YCA offers the winners of its open auditions-where applicants are evaluated by leading musicians, many of them YCA alumni-a three-year contract to start, with the possibility of renewal. (Some artists have remained under its benevolent leadership for as long as eight years.) A successful auditioner enjoys certain opportunities that are priceless to a young person on the threshold of a musical career: New York recital appearances (at the 92nd St. Y and Weill Recital Hall,) and concerto appearances at Alice Tully Hall; debut recitals at Washington's Kennedy Center; free publicity photographs; bookings for paid professional engagements throughout the United States and, in recent years, at some venues in Europe and the Far East; and participation in a national education program that brings the musicians into direct conversation with students in schools and colleges through master classes, lecture-demonstrations, and other in-school activities.

"We feel that an interactive experience with someone on this level of musicianship and virtuosity, who is also close to the students in age, is stimulating for the students," she said. "So little classical music is taught now in the schools. It's not going too far to say that some students never heard classical music before they encountered YCA's artists." In part, she noted, this decline in appreciation of classical music among general audiences is a result of diminished arts funding nationwide over the past 25 years; however, the problem is larger than a matter of shrinking dollars. It is also attributable to a sea change in American culture during the same period. "People used to have a piano in the home. They could play," she said. That amateur music-making, and the capacity for musical appreciation that goes with it, have more or less disappeared. In Wadsworth's view, classical music "is a lost part of our human culture."

Wadsworth, who is married to Charles Wadsworth (founding artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and founder and artistic director of the Chamber Music Concerts at the Spoleto U.S.A. Festival)-grew up in a home where music was as much a part of life as food. Both parents played the piano for sheer enjoyment, even though, as their daughter observes, "they came from the poorest circumstances. My mother said her own teacher got 25 cents a lesson and used to bring the music in her umbrella. My mother's mother was a seamstress, but she got her daughter piano lessons."

Wadsworth, a native of New York City, was born into happier circumstances. Having shown an early talent for playing the piano as well as for academic subjects, she attended Brearley, a private high school in New York City, and, in the summer before she entered Vassar, she participated in a classical music program in Fontainebleau, France, where she studied with Jean Casadesus, the son of distinguished _concert pianists Robert and Gaby Casadesus. At Vassar, Wadsworth majored in English and minored in drama. After college, she returned to Manhattan, where she worked for a while in publishing and at the United Nations. While studying at the Mannes College of Music, she met several young musicians who impressed her as "really big talents": pianists Richard Goode and Michael Oelbaum, violinist Sanford Allen, and conductors Jesse Levine and George Cleve. "I was aware that they were at a time in their lives when nothing was happening for them, and I thought it would be fun to do something." She gave up practicing the piano herself in order to arrange concerts for them.

It was this ad hoc effort that eventually led to the founding of YCA, with a yearly budget of $5,000, which included her salary. Today, its yearly budget is close to $2 million, gathered in part from box-office income from the YCA concert series in Washington and New York. However, the organization is dependent on grants from foundations and contributions from individuals; it also receives help from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Despite the health of her own enterprise, Wadsworth's optimism is shaded on the future of classical music among general audiences in the U.S. "I thought the arts might be revived in the public by now [after having been the target of criticism and Congressional wrath during the 1980s], because they'd be seen as contributing to the quality of life," she said. "Well, it hasn't really happened." Now, she added, people's interest in classical music often starts later in life, not in early childhood. One result: fewer American artists. "It makes sense," she says. "If you don't even know that classical music exists, how do you find a talent for it?

The crisis Wadsworth sees in American music extends to classical music critics. "The press is very pressured to print things with popular appeal," she said. "I single out the New York Times because it is the only newspaper in New York that has a music department filled with writers, critics, and editors assigned to cover classical music. [At the Times], the dance critics love their field, and when the reviews of young artists do come out, they're enthusiastic. In music, the critics frequently spend precious lines critiquing the music of Schubert, Beethoven, or Franck when they should be reviewing the performer. I'm all for the kind of coverage that Martha Argerich recently received on the front page, because it creates an excitement about the field. But she's been a _superstar for thirty years! If there is a young artist who has fabulous qualities, the critics rarely will say that straight out. Instead, they'll modify it. They'll say it in a circuitous, backhanded way. Excitement is also needed for new artists on the scene."

One young artist whose musical qualities justify the adjective "fabulous" is the Indonesian-born pianist Eduardos Halim, a Juilliard graduate, a 1988 YCA discovery, and the last protégé of pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Halim, who has one of the most refined musical sensibilities of his generation, as well as one of the most extraordinary pair of hands-with long, tapering fingers capable of astonishing independent action and the most demanding Lisztian span-has toured much of the U.S. and Europe as a recitalist and concertizer. His praise for YCA in general, and for Wadsworth personally, is heartfelt and unreserved. "It helped me, and not only just me. YCA nurtures all its artists, and it treats each one differently. Susan stayed on top of everything. You can really work on your repertoire there, playing for different audiences; and, with the various concert dates, you're given help to hone all your skills . For the young person, YCA offers a guaranteed network around the country. I played 25 to 30 concerts in each of my three years [there]. The organization is almost like a mother to you. And it offers a healthy environment for starting out in the world."

Mindy Aloff, a member of the Vassar Quarterly editorial committee, is dance critic for The New Republic.