Hartford Conservatory Should Have A Place In City's Cultural Future
June 25, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON
I was sitting in a parlor one evening this winter in a Victorian building on Asylum Avenue, waiting for my teenage daughter to finish her flute lesson, reading Ron Powers' superb biography "Mark Twain: A Life. " I came to a part about Twain visiting his publisher, a man named Elisha Bliss, in Bliss' home on Asylum Avenue.
Good Lord, thought I, am I in the very building? I raced out onto the porch to look at the building number. Alas, I was off by several blocks. Bliss lived closer to downtown, where there are no longer any single-family homes.
Nonetheless, it was oddly exciting that I might have been in Bliss' house, that it was there when Twain walked the streets of Hartford. For all that has gone wrong in the neighborhood, Asylum Avenue west of The Hartford Financial Service Group's campus still reflects the Victorian splendor that attracted Twain to the city.
Two elegant 19th-century buildings on the south side of the street have been rehabbed in recent years. The brick building I was in at 834 Asylum and its mate at 846 Asylum on the north side of the street are from the same period and essential to the look of the avenue. The fate of these structures is tied to their ownership.
The buildings are the home of the Hartford Conservatory, a musical organization with a marvelous past trying desperately to define a viable future. Put simply, the Conservatory, despite the presence of outstanding musicians, has been barely scraping by for years.
To root for the city is to root for the arts; the post-industrial city will be an arts center if it will be anything. There ought to be a role for the conservatory in Hartford. Luckily the board has the right person, the remarkable Linn McGlade, to move the organization from grave to allegro.
The conservatory was founded in 1890 on Broad Street by some of the city's leading families as the Hartford School of Music (the Conservatory's two buildings are called Welch House and Goodwin House, after two of those families). Generations of Hartford youngsters went to the conservatory for music lessons. Its concerts and recitals were among the city's leading entertainments for years; it once had its own orchestra, the Hartford Civic Orchestra.
But recent years have been a struggle. The conservatory hasn't had that one wealthy "angel" who might have adopted it. The Hartt Community Division at the University of Hartford has moved ahead in music instruction (the Hartford Conservatory has 250 students, Hartt about than 10 times that number). Last year the conservatory lost its dean of faculty and best-known performer, the brilliant Dr. Peter Harvey.
The challenge for the conservatory is to find a role, a niche, a vision for itself. Last October it brought in McGlade as interim executive director. McGlade has made a (third) career out of being an interim director. With a background both as a museum curator and an insurance executive, she has been called on to help stabilize several well-known nonprofits, including Hartford Areas Rally Together, the Hartford Children's Theater and the ACLU of Connecticut.
She's restructured the business side. She's got some great ideas for promoting the conservatory; from banners and students performing on the porch of Welch House to performances for the city's often underserved seniors. "We have many creative people here," she said.
The vision, the role for the conservatory, is still a work in progress, but it will involve:
Expanding the diploma program. The school has a two-year or three-year full-time, accredited program in various aspects of music, dance and sound work. This is what is called an immersion program; a student doesn't take math, geology and Chaucer, instead just takes the arts classes. McGlade said it is the only such school in New England. It now has about 50 full-time students and has potential for growth. Many of the students live in the city, and that too is a plus.
A relationship with the Hartford public schools. McGlade said the city's arts program has been cut back as schools try to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. She and others feel the kids left behind are those who don't receive music or dance instruction, and that there is an opportunity for the conservatory to supplement what the schools can do.
The conservatory's board wants to stay in the city and remain in the historic buildings on Asylum Hill. The idea of a recital - I've enjoyed many - in the music room or parlor of a Victorian house is something not easily replicated. It would be nice if some benefactor gave the conservatory a little money for the buildings. They were partitioned, but not destroyed, years ago, and with a few bucks could be returned to a Twain-era elegance.
I've had one child take lessons at the conservatory and another at the Hartt community division, and found each of them terrific. Hartford gains by having both.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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