While the graduating scholars of Haverford College heard this year from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and University of Pennsylvania students from Sen. Cory Booker, the three dozen or so singers, pianists, violinists, and other musicians taking degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music were implored by an industry leader to become "soldiers for music."
Deborah Borda, who leaves as president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to take the same spot at the New York Philharmonic Sept. 15, told Saturday's audience of students, parents, faculty, and guests that "everything I took for granted as a musician first and then managing America's great orchestras has changed."
"Orchestras can no longer rely on old-fashioned subscription models," she said. "Music education is not guaranteed in public schools, and, in a positive sense, the entire history of classical music can all be streamed online for free. So the world I knew, and have worked in, and will continue to work in will not be the one you move through in your careers."
Many of the students will get an immediate taste of a musician's work life when the school orchestra takes off Wednesday for a two-week European tour.
In her 15-minute address, Borda, who trained as a violinist and violist, flattered her audience. "You are the elite of … the microkingdom of classical music," she said. She prodded: "How much time have you spent on your life rather than on your technique?"
Most of all, she urged this audience of super-specialists to lift their heads from their musical scores to figure out how music fits in with larger society. Borda recalled the story of how Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel came to the attention of the orchestra when then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen heard the 24-year-old conductor in what she recalled him saying was "the best damn Mahler [Symphony No.] 5 I ever heard in my life."
But it was Dudamel's philosophy about the place of music in society that she said really changed her life. Borda and Dudamel helped affirm music education as central to what American orchestras do by establishing, in 2007, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, inspired by the El Sistema orchestra-training program in Venezuela, of which Dudamel was a product.
"He changed my way of thinking about music, audiences, social justice – something we don't often talk about in music – education, and, indeed, the technique of life," she said.
Yo-Yo Ma, she noted, calls it being a citizen musician, and Mstislav Rostropovich liked to use the phrase "soldiers for music." Dudamel calls music "a fundamental human right," she said, like clean water, air, and education.
"Together, we have to forge a more profound and timely connection between our music, the music that we love, and the rest of the world," she said.
An honorary doctorate was conferred upon Borda. Voice teacher Marlena Kleinman Malas was presented with a lifetime achievement award, student prizes were handed out, and Schumann and Walton rose from the Field Concert Hall organ. Several students were not present to accept their diplomas at Curtis' 84th commencement for the best of reasons: They were out of town, already engaged for concerts. Five students were recognized for graduating high school, a moment that underlined a young age not uncommon at Curtis.
After speeches, the graduates filed out. But first, each stopped to shake hands with Eleanor Sokoloff, sitting at the end of a row near the exit. Sokoloff is 102, and she has been on the piano faculty at the school for eight decades. The moment wasn't planned, but it was a spontaneous bit of pageantry that seemed just right. A diploma might make it official. But a moment of recognition from a woman regarded as something of the school's queen mother seals the deal spiritually.