2019 Convocation Remarks

September 3, 2019

Juilliard community:

We gather here to celebrate the beginning of another year in this extraordinary place. What a place it is. Where for over a hundred years young artists have arrived full of talent and hope, drive and dreams. Where for over those same hundred plus years that talent has been nurtured, encouraged and cultivated, and brought to full bloom. Over the decades, like rings within a glorious ever-growing tree, this place has added the experiences of so many. All of whom added a line to the ongoing story of Juilliard.

There have been lines written by students, who have done this school proud not only by their prodigious achievements, but also by their creative insights, asking why, and why not? Challenging methods and orthodoxies as students everywhere have always done, mastering the past while creating the future.

There have been so many lines written by teachers, who all share the common quality of belief. Belief in the future of the young artists they are devoted to, and belief in the excellence possible with rigorous work in concert with inspiring discipline and dedication.

And there have been lines written by administrators that have made our young artists ever more cared for as individuals, as human beings, as members of a family built on mutual respect and inclusivity, ever more aware and sensitive to the unique role they can play in the history of our world.

I recently came across a piece that Frank Rich wrote about Juilliard back in 2002: “the original idea that launched the institute of musical art, Juilliard’s predecessor, was a particularly American one.

The school’s founder, Frank Damrosch, was the head of music education for New York’s public school system in an era when immigrants were remaking the city. Damrosch had the wisdom to seek students of every possible origin, regardless of gender or social class. This was far from a standard vision for the time. High culture in America still meant mainly imported European culture, not the heterogeneous, home-grown brew it would become. Damrosch wanted to inculcate the classical tradition in his students, but in a fertile democratic environment, open to all with the talent and the will to pursue it.”

Yes to all of that, but with the note that as with our democracy, we need to continue the project, to make it truly open, recognizing that talent has always been greater than opportunity, and that with each generation we must expand our ambition, and with each student we must seize the opportunity each represents.

I first experienced Juilliard as a 15-year-old aspiring dancer with enormous dreams. I was lucky to receive a transformative education in this building as a student at the School of American ballet, which was then housed on Juilliard’s third floor. In the midst of all of Juilliard’s student musicians, actors and dancers, I discovered the world of the arts, and i broadened my ambitions day by day.

As I walk through the studios and classrooms today, our students’ possibilities now inform my own vision for the school’s future. I see and hear your commitment to maintaining and upholding the traditions of excellence which provide the essential base for any leap into the new.

I feel your energy, your accomplishment, and your own hunger for transformation, and your choice to look for that transformation here in this place, this creates the most pivotal obligation for us.

Our peerless faculty and staff answer that call as they have done for over a century, with an abiding commitment to providing you our students the opportunity to become the most extraordinary artists and human beings.

Faculty please stand and accept a well-deserved ovation!

Staff please stand and accept your well-deserved ovation!

I want to express my gratitude to our board of trustees, led by our chairman Bruce Kovner. Your belief in the role of Juilliard in the world is clear, unshakeable, and inspiring for me and for all of us.

I have already spoken of our extraordinary provost and dean, Ara Guzelimian, but I must say again how in your debt this school and I personally am for your dedication to every student’s future over these past 12 years. I can only be grateful for this next year with you, and grateful for the vision you provide every day and will continue to provide in years to come in what I know will be inventive and deeply meaningful ways.

As we begin the school year, we recognize the renewal that is a constant at Juilliard. We can celebrate so many developments this first day of our school year. The new vocal program within Juilliard Jazz has welcomed its first students. New faculty are beginning across the school in various divisions. There are new workshops planned and new initiatives taking shape, we celebrate milestones of meaning, from faculty anniversaries to the 10th year of historical performance.

We have new inspiration to draw on from our JuilliART initiative, and, we have a newly renovated cafeteria! Above all, we have new students, adding to our collective story, and fortifying this institution and the arts world itself with their promise.

So we begin anew. I hope this finds you all refreshed and inspired by your summer adventures, some of which we got to see on the screen before we began today. It has been a summer of beauty in many ways, and in many places, all around the world, from the Gardens of Thire where our students and alumni have been performing at William Christie’s magical festival, to royal albert hall where members of our orchestra joined forces with young musicians from the royal academy of music in a triumphant proms concert in July, to performances of Dido and Aeneas at no less a venue than Versailles! And that’s just a little of what our musicians have been doing…

Our drama students have been honing their craft from Connecticut to Oxford, and our dance students have taken part in festivals and collectives from Italy to Vancouver. The reality is our young artists, and our alumni, give proof every day of the year to the fact that Juilliard is the future of the arts. And in so many ways, the future writ large as this world’s artists define the narratives of their time, and define them as art has always done, for all time.

This summer has been rich in beauty indeed, but has also been in many places a time of challenges. Challenges that have tested us and continue to.

The horror of the hate fueled gun violence this country is enduring is a shocking jolt to our faith in being safe in our society. And we risk losing a piece of our collective faith not only in our safety, but also in our common humanity. A humanity built on respect and love of ones fellow inhabitants on this planet. How do we best respond? As artists, and as fellow citizens of the world. It is of course tempting to answer injustice with anger, but the wisest among us share better pathways… among the sadnesses of these past weeks was losing the extraordinary writer and thinker Toni Morrison, but her profound genius will guide us always. She once said of anger:

“… it's a paralyzing emotion ... You can't get anything done. People sort of think it's an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don't think it's any of that — it's helpless ... It's absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers ...”

As has always been the case, our artists stand as a call to the better angels of our society’s nature to lead us to progress and healing, through your gifts, and through each of your resilience. It is in that spirit that I speak to you today. As I know each of you holds in your possession the opportunity to play a meaningful role in our world, through your skills, your power.

Your excellence in your respective practices is evidence of your passion and your ability, of your commitment and your talent. Of your discipline, and your attendant success.

Whether through performance, or through teaching, or by providing the platform for those activities and others that bring the arts to life, our community is uniquely gifted with the opportunity to be of service in challenging times as well as times of joy.

The nature of the arts is service. From the earliest cave paintings depicting life as it was and as those early artists dreamed it might be, to the music that accompanies the most important moments of our lives whether celebration or mourning across all cultures and geographies, to films that inform and spur us to action, to the dances that physically energize and align our souls; the arts frame and reframe the world. In this time, I think often of Yo-Yo Ma and his musical presence at events large and small. His range of presence is instructive, from playing at the wedding of a friend’s son or daughter, to the funeral of a senator, to a memorial for 9/11, to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, to an enormous number of second grade classrooms around the world… Yo-Yo epitomizes the artist’s life as one of connection to the world, and of collaboration with the world.

This is a goal I think is more relevant than ever, and one that is in complete harmony with the goals we seek at Juilliard in preparing our students to be the most extraordinarily accomplished artists.

In the heartbreaking circumstances we see our fellow human beings facing, we must as a community act as a bulwark for civilization and humanity. We must look to our strengths as communicators and connectors through art, to reach deep into our abilities to be positive forces for our fellow inhabitants on this planet. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Said that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” but he did not mean that was inevitable. It takes intervention. I would also say it takes the plays that instruct and challenge our thinking, the dances that make our hearts beat together in a rhythm of purpose, and the music that says what words cannot. It is not an accident that Bach is a call to reflection, it has been for centuries. It is also in that reflection, a call to action – in that spirit I’ve asked Chloe Kim to bless this house as it were, with the first movement of Bach’s Sonata in G minor.

Let us take that benediction as an inspiration as we begin this new year at Juilliard. There is no other place in the world with such collective power to make the arts a positive part of our human story. I am honored to join you in this potential, in responding to need through art, by looking deeper into our mission of creating excellence in our artistry. That true excellence transcends technique. We will always provide our young artists the matchless education Juilliard is rightfully known for, without excellence as a base, we have an insecure platform to leap into the future, towards the true excellence we hope for that lies in the ability and commitment to being transformative artists, artists who communicate across centuries. It lies in our strength of inclusivity, always working to increase the breadth and depth of our voices, and in the power of our creative purpose whether in a centuries old adagio or something new created later this evening.

In closing, I wish for you and for our school the ability to create and promote harmony. Within our walls and without, we have a unique opportunity to be a part of something larger than our own abilities. To answer the question “what can we do together that we cannot do alone?” Is to look inside each of our practices with purpose and then to turn to our peers with openness and hope. To say “what if…?” Knowing that has always been the prerequisite of promise.

And that “what if?” itself is a practice that will stay with you for life. As you students become the artists you were meant to be, it can be your doorway to a full creative life, a creative life you may not realize is possible, because as yet it is still an idea waiting in your mind.

Recognize that idea and fulfill it, and recognize the next one, and the next one, and on and on as you build that full creative life. Let me finish with one more quote from the irreplaceable Toni Morrison: “if there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” And we, Juilliard, are here to bring that book to its full promise, and we look forward with great anticipation, and expectation, of the lines your will write in this ongoing story that is the continuum of Juilliard.

Let us begin this year recommitted to that promise.


Damian Woetzel

Last Updated Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, 05:19PM