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First principles

John Robert Brown reports from this year's congress of the Association of European Conservatoires.

Fauré, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Joachim, Cherubini or Rubinstein: all were famous musicians and composers. But each was also the director of a conservatory. Chairman Edward Gregson made this point when introducing the opening session on 'The Role of the Leader' at this year's congress of the Association of European Conservatoires (AEC), held at Birmingham Conservatoire in November.

Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) since 1996, Gregson is an active composer whose list of works extends to more than one hundred. He asked: "Should the principal of a conservatoire be a musician?" No surprise, then, that he answered his own question with an unequivocal 'yes'.

A look at the AEC delegates - a patriarchal group numbering around 150, and 90% male, at a guess - indicated how many senior conservatoire staff are active as performers or composers. For example, George Caird, Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, is an accomplished oboist. Colin Lawson, Principal of the Royal College of Music, is a clarinet virtuoso who has appeared as a soloist in Carnegie Hall. And, more distant, Nam-Hee Kim, Dean of the College of Music and Performing Arts at Keimyung University in Daegu, Korea (whose career began when she won a scholarship to study in the USA during the years of the 1960s that were so difficult for Korean musicians), told me that she still manages at least ninety minutes of piano practice every day.

It was no surprise, then, that classical musical performances were threaded generously into the AEC conference proceedings. Before every session there was a short concert. Thus, Friday's session, 'The Role of the Director: Educational Leader? Artistic Planner? Institutional Manager?' was preceded by a splendid performance of Alan Rawsthorne's Concerto for Ten Instruments. As 2005 is Rawsthorne's centenary year, it was a timely choice, and a student ensemble from the Royal College of Music, conducted by Simon Channing, gave an exemplary interpretation. A commendable aspect of the conference, this inclusion of live music served to remind us that ultimately the AEC is about fostering performance and composition at the highest standard.

Formed in 1953, with headquarters in Utrecht, the AEC is for professional music training organisations. The AEC Council comprises twelve members, organised so that each country has only one council member. AEC events include the annual congress (for directors and senior managers), the annual meeting of international relations coordinators, and specific seminars.

Despite the AEC's specific 'European' title, several visitors came from beyond the EU. Charles Bodman Rae, Elder Professor of Music at the University of Adelaide, was formerly at the Royal Northern College of Music. He made the long journey from Australia. From the USA came B. Glen Chandler, Director, School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Other delegates travelled from Israel, Ireland, Russia and Turkey.

Proceedings of the AEC Congress were mostly in English, with translators working efficiently to provide live versions relayed in both French and German by headphones. Vice-President of the AEC since 2002, Marie-Claude Segard, Director Conservatoire National de Region de Strasbourg, spoke of having 'our feet on the ground and our eyes on the horizon'. Frans de Ruiter, director of the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague, told of the enormous changes he had seen in twenty years, and how much of a principal's role amounts to a legitimisation to the outside world. "Students need more time - when (today) they have less time," he said.

Iceland's only conservatoire, the Department of Music at Iceland Academy of the Arts, is now four years old, created from scratch by composer Mist Thorkelsdottir. She spoke of how she even had to specify and order the chairs and computers herself. On her first day in the job, to provide the illustration for a poster that was wanted urgently, she photographed her own young son playing the fiddle. We were reminded by various delegates of persistent difficulties that are common to all music colleges - including the difficulty of creating a college ethos and culture from a group of teachers who visit only for brief periods each week, and of the challenge of the instrumental teacher who shares - both in content and method - only what s/he was taught long ago.

But today there was much emphasis on how to handle a music training organisation in a rapidly changing context. Because a large proportion of the AEC member organisations combine art and music in their provision, it was an inspired move to organise one of the receptions at the IKON Modern Art Gallery. Another reception took place at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which has a homely restaurant with no piped music, should you ever be seeking lunch in the city. One of the greatest collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world is exhibited here, within a few metres of the doors of the Conservatoire.

A concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Louis Langrée, with Imogen Cooper, piano, concluded the congress. Performed in Symphony Hall, the programme included Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. The composer taught at Vienna University from 1875. What would have thought about contemporary European developments in professional music training?

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First published in Classical Music, 17 Dec 2005. Used by kind permission
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