Together Apart | Juilliard Commencement 2020

Friday, May 29, 2020
Susan Jackson
Juilliard Journal
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A screenshot from the online commencement ceremony

Congratulations Class of 2020!

We are having a commencement that challenges all expectation. But through this all, I am heartened by our ability to circumvent and to invent. In many ways, we are here together. I am reminded that we define togetherness.—President Damian Woetzel

In the third week of May, Juilliard celebrated its graduates, just as it does every year. The 115th Commencement was truly different from any that had happened before. But even though it took place via Zoom and YouTube—over two days with multiple divisional and departmental mini-celebrations—that ability to circumvent and invent managed to capture the exuberance of the 280 students completing their dance, drama, and music degrees, albeit from all over the world rather than in Alice Tully Hall.

“You have worked hard to master the demanding curriculum of coursework, lessons, rehearsals, and performances. You have coped with the extraordinary difficulties of the COVID epidemic,” Bruce Kovner, chairman of the board, told the more than 5,000 people who were watching the livestream of the main ceremony. “You have persevered and triumphed. We are enormously proud of you.”

In some ways, the contours of the days were similar to other years. Remarks were punctuated with moving artistic interludes. Provost and Dean Ara Guzelimian and President Woetzel conferred degrees. But rather than there being a formal speaker, there was a conversation between Woetzel and Yo-Yo Ma (Pre-College ’71; Professional Studies ’72, cello) about connecting, uniting, and the importance of the arts in troubled times, themes made manifest by Ma’s haunting rendition of the Prelude from Bach’s first cello suite.

In his speech to the graduates, Woetzel said that “the rigor and excellence of our practice determines our ability to connect through art with each other and with our audiences. And that is what you have invested in at Juilliard. You have honed your skills to be connectors, and that is the ultimate goal of all your work—that you connect it to others.”

A Healing Balm

The night before the main ceremony and in the hours following it, graduates broke out into Zoom “rooms” to celebrate their achievements with their division or department and friends and family members.

Alicia Graf Mack, director of the Dance Division, like many of the speakers, invoked Juilliard’s incredible artistic legacy. “Some of the greatest pioneers of dance,” she told the program’s 20 graduates, “gained the knowledge and the courage to change the landscape of the dance world with their unwavering artistic voices. You, class of 2020, are now of the same lineage, the same dance DNA, and I am certain that you will take all of what you have learned over the last four years and change our world for the better.”

Graf Mack also acknowledged these painful times, noting, “with essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, and the difficult reality that we have already lost too many to the virus, your work as artists is also essential—as a healing balm to transport us from our sorrow, even just for the span of a two-hour performance.”

In each of the small gatherings, administrators and faculty members worked to personalize the experience for the students. There was a slide show featuring dancers in their first and fourth years. Each of the nine jazz graduates was delightfully and poignantly introduced by both a faculty member and a fellow student. Vocal Arts and Historical Performance students were treated to highlights of their time at Juilliard. Recent acting graduates wished the drama grads well.

Many of the gatherings also featured special guests. Choreographer Alonzo King urged the dancers to “visualize the blueprint of what you want to become” and noted that while they’re accustomed to being restricted (standing in fifth position, say), it’s more important now than ever to find freedom within the constraints. András Schiff spoke with the 42 piano and collaborative piano graduates, lamenting that they hadn’t been able to have scheduled master classes this spring but extolling music’s power to be a solace. Schiff demonstrated that power with a performance of what he called one of Bach’s “greatest masterpieces,” the Sinfonia in F Minor. Renowned organist Diane Bish wished the five organ graduates well. Mezzo-sopranos Denyce Graves and Isabel Leonard (BM ’04, MM ’06, voice), soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, soprano Renée Fleming (’86, voice/opera), and conductor Yannick Nézet Séguin recorded inspirational greetings for the singers. William Christie spoke with the Historical Performance students. And Wendell Pierce (Group 14) told the drama graduates “Trust me when I tell you that what you’ve learned here has prepared you for success anywhere in this world,” adding, “Your generation will make its mark as it answers the clarion call to speak truth today.”

More Necessary Than Ever

Faculty and administrators spoke in all the gatherings, talking about their students’ journey over the years, their accomplishments, and the challenges that remain. “You have shown resilience and generosity, a fierce appetite for the work and extraordinary caring for each other,” Evan Yionoulis, the director of the Drama Division, said, noting, “you did not let this pandemic halt your trajectory.” She also suggested that the 17 acting students and four playwrights “use this time to envision what the theater can be [and] what it can do to effect change, to touch hearts, to heal the soul, to expose injustice, to lift communities up and to give voice to the voiceless, to reveal the unseen. To speak to the times in which we live.”

David Robertson, Juilliard’s director of conducting studies, told the 139 orchestra-member graduates that they are forgiven for feeling that what happened this spring was unfair though he added that “in times of trouble, you become more necessary than ever.” Catherine Cho (BM ’92, MM ’94, violin; faculty 1996-present) honored “the brilliant, compassionate, accomplished, diligent and outstanding class of 2020” by telling the graduates, “adversity shines a light on the true essence of humanity.”

In the Vocal Arts gathering, Stephen Wadsworth, faculty member and head of the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program, told the program’s 16 graduates, “Some days you’ll feel awesome, and some days you will just feel overwhelmed, and you should honor those feelings and let them happen and not punish yourself for them.” However, he added, “Art is an absolute. It’s the only thing I know of that’s smarter than the virus. I guarantee you, the instant our world can manage it, millions of people will flock to the theaters and concert halls and they will need what you … will be uniquely qualified to give.”

After speaking of the many Historical Performance highlights during the 13 graduates’ years at Juilliard, Robert Mealy, its director, echoed the theme of art’s power to heal: “This music we love so much is about communication: about sharing joy, longing, consolation, yearning, delight. It’s a language that speaks to people personally and intimately, that brings people back to themselves; that’s something we need now more than ever, and I love that in this moment where we are all separated, you continue to find new ways to share this music with each other and with the world.”

A Grand Fermata

For the moment, Mealy added, “We are in a grand fermata, but every fermata comes to a close: I wish you great patience with this world and with yourselves as we wait for this endless cadenza to resolve. Once we all come back in together after this grand pause, the world will need your music more than ever.”

The notion of redefining the profession came up again and again in these joyful but poignant gatherings. “These are extraordinary times and extraordinary circumstances, but they create extraordinary opportunities,” said Matthias Pintscher, one of the four composition faculty members who spoke to the program’s five graduates.

While each departmental gathering was different, reflecting the size and makeup and personalities of the students and faculty, President Woetzel and Provost and Dean Guzelimian stopped by each one, from the doctoral, piano, and orchestral students’ gatherings the night before graduation to the composers’ and organ events late on Friday afternoon. At the composers gathering, Woetzel echoed a theme he’d talked about earlier in the day, saying, “This is the end of the beginning, the bridge to what’s to come. This is your chance to be lit from within and take that spark out into the world.” And then, as had happened in all of the gatherings, students, friends, relatives, and faculty and staff members unmuted themselves and joyfully, tearfully congratulated one another.

With additional reporting by Joshua Simka, Gloria Gottschalk, Victoria Grempel, Mara Vlatković, and Kevin Filipski