Dr. James Gandre became President of the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) in May 2013. Previously, he had served at MSM for fifteen years (1985–2000), most recently as Dean of Enrollment and Alumni. In 2000, he became Dean of Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where he went on to serve as the Interim Dean of the College of Education, and then as the University’s Provost and Executive Vice President.

Dr. James Gandre

A highly regarding expert in the American conservatory, its role in music education and its impact on cultural life, Dr. Gandre has lectured at higher education institutions including the Curtis Institute of Music, New England Conservatory, Oberlin College, University of Michigan, Peabody Institute, Mannes College of Music, Stanford University, University of Michigan, Royal Danish Academy of Music, National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, China Conservatory of Music, University of the Arts, University of New Mexico and Interlochen Arts Academy.

As a performer, Dr. Gandre has appeared as a tenor soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra, London Classical Players, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and members of the San Francisco Symphony. His professional choral engagements include more than 175 performances with the New York Philharmonic, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, Warsaw Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony, American Symphony, Opera Orchestra of New York and Voices of Ascension, and more than 20 commercial recordings and television appearances. In these performances, he has worked under such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Sir Colin Davis, James Levine, Mstislav Rostropovich, Riccardo Chailly, Robert Shaw, Edo de Waart, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, John Nelson, Carlos Kalmar, Giuseppe Patane, Dennis Russell Davies and Eduardo Mata.

Dr. Gandre is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (GRAMMYS) and a member of the Recommendation Board of the Avery Fisher Artist Program. He has been a judge for the Region Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with James Gandre at his home in New York City for this follow-up Conversation about all that has been achieved at MSM since our last Conversation with him in the fall of 2013.

STAY THIRSTY: Stay Thirsty Magazine’s first Conversation with you was six years ago just after you assumed the presidency of Manhattan School of Music (MSM). How has your vision for MSM’s role in the 21st century evolved over those years?

JAMES GANDRE: I’m actually not sure it’s changed in any fundamental way. We are in existence to provide a professional music education which has, at its core, excellence. Additionally, we must provide the environment to our students that allows them to grow and transform as individuals as well. My belief in that core mission for MSM has only grown stronger and I am more passionate about why we exist and the work we do today than I was six years ago.

Perhaps the way it has changed is that I see that collaboration with other institutions, whether they be arts presenters or other conservatories, must increase if we are to continue to expand what we offer our students and if we are to open their lives up to greater possibilities for their own careers. To that end, we’ve created relationships with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the American Ballet Theatre, Teachers College of Columbia University, and others. We are now working on a new online degree completion program for working artists who never completed a Bachelor’s degree. This will be the first of its kind in the nation and will serve a huge need that now goes unfilled. We are also beginning discussions with other independent conservatories in the US, and beyond, about online elective courses for our on-campus students. This new program would greatly expand the offerings in the areas of music theory and history more than any one of the standalone conservatories could now hope to offer.

STAY THIRSTY: During the past year, MSM has celebrated its 100th year with its Centennial Project. How long was this project in the planning and what were the major elements that unfolded to mark this milestone?

JAMES GANDRE: The Centennial Project was the renovation of our primary performance hall, Neidorff-Karpati Hall, and the move of our entrance to the elegant former entrance, which is right in front of the doors to the newly renovated Hall. These spaces were designed by the same architects who designed the Empire State Building, so these spaces are filled with wonderful Art Deco jewels that make the Hall that much more special. 

Manhattan School of Music - New Entrance

This $15-million project was a mere 16 months of construction and about four years total from concept through fundraising to completion. Wonderfully – and thankfully – it came in on time and on budget, and is truly magnificent. Our architects, construction company, and supporting trades did a superb job and the product is as good or better in every way than we had hoped and planned for. Our Trustees really came together to make the renovation of the Hall a reality and our staff worked hard and smart to make sure the project came in as expected, on time, and on budget. Our anchor gift – and a recent follow-up gift for further renovations to adjacent spaces – by NoĆ©mi Karpati Neidorff (BM ‘70; MM ‘72) and Michael Neidorff launched our fundraising and without their incredible generosity, the project would not have been accomplished. The rest of the fundraising came in the form of a $2.8M grant from the City of New York, and another $4M+ from our Board of Trustees, International Advisory Board, and others.

Our yearlong Centennial celebration was simply exhilarating and the re-opening of Neidorff-Karpati Hall (NKH) was one of three “pillar” concerts of our 100th year. We started our year with a four-concert “festival” in September which covered all of the major areas/disciplines we teach. The final concert that day was Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the spectacular Riverside Church, just across the street from our campus. Roderick Cox was conducting, and the concert featured four alumni soloists, our Symphony Orchestra, and our chorus, and they performed in packed house. It was a thrilling way to kick off our 100th celebrations.

The Neidorff-Karpati Hall - Entrance

In November, we re-opened NKH with a gala concert again featuring every part of our institution – classical, jazz and musical theatre. We again featured our students, faculty, and alumni as soloists. In April, we presented our big Carnegie Hall Gala Concert which featured one of our trustees, conductor Leonard Slatkin on the podium, and Alec Baldwin (HonDMA ’12) as our host. Soloists included the great Metropolitan Opera star, alumna Susan Graham, Trustee and jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, and famed pianist and faculty member Olga Kern. For both of these concerts we said “All MSM, all night” because there wasn’t a single person on stage either night who was not formally a part of our MSM family.

Manhattan School of Music Centennial Concert

These three “pillar” concerts were surrounded and complimented by a whole season of performances – 800! – in which we wove works premiered from our past, including our 50th, 75th, etc. anniversaries, plus historic works that were performed for special occasions that we repeated.

STAY THIRSTY: How has the energy at MSM changed with the unveiling of the renovation of The Neidorff-Karpati Hall performance hall?

JAMES GANDRE: NKH is literally at the center of our campus. And now, with opening of our new main campus entrance right in front of NKH, the Hall takes on an even greater importance and symbolism. Add to that the Hall’s new beauty, its greater versatility as a major performance space, plus the now spectacular acoustics, NKH is the major gem in our campus’ proverbial crown. Our new entrance, in all its stunning redesigned Art Deco glory, has also added a certain glamour and sophistication to our college, something the former entrance, as beloved as it was by many, couldn’t begin to do. 

The Neidorff-Karpati Hall

STAY THIRSTY: The first sentence in MSM’s mission statement reads: “Manhattan School of Music is deeply committed to excellence in education, performance, and creative activity; to the humanity of the School’s environment; and to the cultural enrichment of the larger community.” In today’s culturally and racially sensitive world, how does MSM achieve “humanity” in the school environment?

JAMES GANDRE: We have always taken great pride in being a truly warm, inviting, nurturing place, while still demanding excellence, something not all conservatories can claim. I think this feeling, this humanity, can be traced to our beginning which started at the Union Settlement on East 104th. Janet Schenck founded MSM after the Settlement could no longer afford to provide music instruction during WWI. She formed her own Board and the school stayed at Union Settlement for several years before it moved to its own campus. The other major contributing factors were our own location on East 105th Street in what became known as Spanish Harlem and then our move in 1969 to our current location in Morningside Heights, an amazing neighborhood just north of the Upper West Side which houses seven higher education institutions in just a 10-block area (including Columbia University), the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Riverside Church, and a few other cultural institutions.

As we move forward into the 21st Century, the idea of “humanity” is moving beyond the concept and reality of that during our first 100 years and is taking on a far more conscious and deliberate expansion of inclusion of the truly diverse society in which we live each day. This will bring with it a new focus on creating an environment when all of our family can bring their full selves to the School every time they walk on campus.

STAY THIRSTY: With a faculty comprised of members of New York City’s leading performing institutions and acclaimed soloists, chamber musicians, jazz artists and Broadway legends, how difficult has it been from an administrative perspective to keep so many industry leaders and talented artists on track to further the mission and goals of MSM?

JAMES GANDRE: This is perhaps one of our easier tasks! Our faculty are, quite simply, miraculous. These people, mostly practicing artists, bring to their work, their students, their incredible experience and passion for what they do. Because we are in a city with the largest concentration of classical, jazz, and musical theatre artists, we have a luxury that no other institution in the country has: A plethora of great artists in one place who want to pass along their knowledge, expertise, and artistry to a new generation of young artists. 

STAY THIRSTY: With curricula ranging from Classical Performance to Jazz Arts to Musical Theatre to Orchestral Performance and Contemporary Performance, how does a modern-day conservatory like MSM keep things fresh and appealing to students?

JAMES GANDRE: These enduring art forms have engaged new and aspiring artists for generations and generations, and this has not changed. In fact, we have more applicants than ever before. That being said, we are now undergoing a three-year or so curricular review where we will be assessing how we might change our curriculum to meet the changing “business” environment of these three fields as well as the needs of this new generation of students.

STAY THIRSTY: Now that MSM has entered its second century, how do you see the institution progressing over the next 25 and 50 years? Will the role of the music conservatory in music education maintain its importance in the future?

JAMES GANDRE: I believe that the role of the music conservatory with its belief that having practicing, professional artists teach aspiring artists will never grow old. If you look at the artists who inhabit the stages of this country and beyond, the vast majority of them attended conservatories for one or more of their degrees. I believe that is the case because of the faculty all institutions similar to ours engage, but also because the students we attract have this drive, this need to be in an immersive environment that is difficult to replicate outside the worlds of the independent conservatories.

STAY THIRSTY: What are your personal goals for MSM during the next years of your tenure?

JAMES GANDRE: My colleagues and I have accomplished a lot during these past six years. We invested $30M in renovation to the campus, we have brought on new and wonderful faculty, and we have doubled our fundraising. During the next say six years we must never take our eyes off the prize of providing the best possible education we can for the students who entrust us with their futures to us. To do this work we must always look to have faculty who know their art and have a passion for teaching and passing it along to new generations. It also means never being self-satisfied with the greatness of our past but looking to creating an even better future. 

My goals include continuing to improve our campus which includes three buildings – 1910; 1931; and 2001 – so we provide good as well as exemplary spaces in which our faculty and students can do their work. A final central goal of mine to aggressively grow our investment portfolio and endowment so we can continue to support the best faculty and students. 

Stay Thirsty Magazine Conversation with James Gandre (2013)  

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.