Composing The Future

Peabody's new director plans to campaign across the land for classical music

November 19, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

When it comes to having a vision, Jeffrey Sharkey, the new director of the Peabody Institute, doesn't fool around.

"He believes that music will eventually save the world," says Doreen Falby, a faculty member of the school's preparatory division and director of the Peabody Children's Chorus.

It's easy to get a sense of that faith as Sharkey takes a short lunch break one afternoon at the institute, located in the shadow of Baltimore's Washington Monument on Mount Vernon Place.

"It may be a cliche that music bridges boundaries, but it's true - and it needs to be true. Music brings people together," Sharkey says. "Music reaches you on a profound, visceral level. I want to campaign for this art form, locally and nationally."

In September, Sharkey became the 15th director (counting two acting directors) in the history of Peabody, part of the Johns Hopkins University since 1977. A pianist, composer and educator, Sharkey now is responsible for an institution with an annual budget of about $32 million and a student body of 650, with another 1,800 preparatory students.

His idealism seems to echo that of George Peabody's 150 years ago, when the Baltimore entrepreneur and philanthropist wrote a letter laying out plans for an institute that would "promote at all times a spirit of harmony and good will in society."

There is certainly no shortage of that spirit in the tall, outgoing, Delaware-born Sharkey, whose boyish looks make him appear more like a grad student than a 41-year-old executive. It's an enthusiasm that has carried him through an eventful career.

Sharkey began playing the piano when he was 4 and received his first lessons from his mother (who grew up in Baltimore). He began working with his first formal teacher two years later. At 11, he started writing music, too.

The budding composer had a chance to show his work to one of the most important figures in American music. Aaron Copland, while on a visit to the University of Delaware in Newark, where Sharkey's father was vice president for student affairs, stayed at the Sharkey home.

Copland invited the boy to keep in touch, which Sharkey did when visiting his grandparents in Westchester County, N.Y., near the celebrated man's home.

"He was one of the nicest persons I ever met," Sharkey says. "It was wonderful that he would give this unknown kid from Delaware the time of day - and thoughtful advice.

"I'll always remember his genuine graciousness, and his concern for what he called the inevitability of music: Making sure a piece had structure, a sense of direction, a sense of the inevitable."

Sharkey's life seems to have had its own inevitability. He maintained dual studies in piano and composition at the Manhattan School of Music, then concentrated on composition at Yale University, where he met his wife, British cellist Alison Wells.

He moved to England with her - "I was her American souvenir," he says with a broad smile - and got a master of philosophy degree at Cambridge University. He started a chamber music group, the Pirasti Piano Trio, with Wells. It enjoyed success on record and on tour.

Wanting "to balance performing with a greater sense of security," Sharkey moved into pre-college level teaching, first at the Wells Cathedral School in Somerset in 1990 (his computer wallpaper is a picture of Glastonbury Abbey, a spot near Wells Cathedral where legend has it that King Arthur is buried).

In 1996, he entered the administrative arena at London's Purcell School, where he was director of music.

"I became fascinated with the chesslike nature of running an institution," Sharkey says. He made his next move, in 2001, back to the States, where he became dean at the Cleveland Institute of Music. And now, Peabody.

"I don't like the root word of conservatory, conserve," he says. "Yes, that is part of what we do: Passing traditions down to new generations. But we also develop new ways to keep the language alive. And I see Peabody leading the way."

But, at a time when many orchestras, even eminent, long-established ones, have been facing substantial budget troubles, a combination of dwindling donors and audiences, might conservatories be increasingly irrelevant? Won't there be many more graduates than jobs?

"I'm optimistic," Sharkey says. "Our students can cross many potential careers. Most of them expect that they will be doing a combination of things - some teaching, some performing - not immediately going into a full-time orchestra position or some 9-to-5 job.

"That's one of the challenges, but also one of the joys, because it means your career never becomes routine."

Routine is one thing that doesn't seem to be in Sharkey's repertoire. His high-ceilinged office, dominated by a striking Edward Redfield landscape from the 1920s and a grand piano, is not just a place of administrative business.

It's also a music studio, where Sharkey coaches two student chamber ensembles twice a week. "I don't want to get stuck behind a desk," the director says.

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