“A thousand days” has become a yardstick for new presidents, ever since Arthur Schlesinger’s book by that title took the measure of the Kennedy administration. As we will hear in what follows, we live in a more fast-paced, unforgiving era than the 1960s, so it is appropriate that this conversation with NEC President Tony Woodcock occurred a scant two hundred days into his administration. On December 19, 2007, shortly after President Woodcock announced the process that led to NEC’s Strategic Plan in 2008, NEC Director of Communications Rob Schmieder asked the new president to take a moment to reflect on NEC’s place in the world, and to offer his thoughts on the world of NEC based on his first few months in Boston. A shorter version of this conversation appears in the Winter 2008 edition of Notes magazine.

Tony Woodcock Interview

Hugh Wolff conducts NEC Philharmonia

NEC has taught me a lot in a brief period of time. I’ve found it to be rejuvenating and regenerative. Seeing these kids perform, and seeing the total commitment that they make, with no holds barred — it’s 200%, they don’t care what’s happening the next day. That performance of Shostakovich 5 that the NEC Philharmonia did this fall with Hugh Wolff — a professional orchestra could never play like that, ever. Because they’d be so worried about the rehearsals next morning, and additional performances — rather like having to run the marathon twice in a week. The kids didn’t do that, they just absolutely went for it, this was the definitive performance of Shostakovich 5 — because that’s how they felt about it — there were no parameters of contracts and working practices. And I was deeply moved by that approach. I was reminded of the role of musicians, and I was reminded of how magical that can be.

What surprises you most about the people you’ve met here at NEC?

Getting to know the students — and I try to chat with them and meet with them informally as well as formally — what comes over to me is a very positive distinction between how I would have been when I was a student, and how they are now as students. I would never have had the temerity to engage the head of my college in debate, in discussion — and I adore that they do that with me.

I find the students at NEC to be unbelievably smart and savvy, with a very real understanding of the world that they live in and a very keen understanding of the challenges facing them as they go out into that world. I have been amazed at the level of creativity on and off the platform. The fact that they are willing to work “stark out” is a great reflection of the quality of studio tuition that they’re getting. They also can look at very wide-ranging concert programs, they can look at different forms of presentation. And then suddenly they’re also great at publicity and marketing, and photographs and Web sites and all of these things. I think those are extraordinary abilities to have.

I have enjoyed enormously getting to know faculty, because faculty is the greatest foundation that we have. It informs all student choices about whether or not they want to come to NEC. And I’ve found a commitment and passion from our faculty that is inspiring. One would expect to see teachers who are about more than “we’re just here to teach for an hour and then we’re out of here.” One would expect to see conscientious teachers who care about their students’ progress. But here I see something beyond even that: I see a faculty that is deeply bonded to NEC as a community.

I’ve also been meeting with NEC’s donors, and I think that the level of donor support that we get here is phenomenal. I think a lot of things are right as far as that’s concerned: good relationships, strong relationships, people seeing NEC’s role in this community and the musical world as being something they really want to support. And the fact that we’re going to conclude a $100 million campaign in short order is testament to our donors’ vision of NEC’s vital mission.

I’ve been amazed by the community overall. If you just take Huntington Avenue, you’ve got some really world-class organizations within a stone’s throw, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Museum of Fine Arts — as well as educational institutions. Looking more broadly at Boston, I’ve been meeting with the presidents of Harvard and Northeastern Universities, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe, and WGBH President and CEO Jon Abbott, among many others.

Where do you see the greatest potential for NEC to work with some of these other organizations?

What I’m involved with at the moment is throwing up all sorts of possibilities, just saying “OK, with a blank piece of paper, let’s see what we can do, let’s see what this might mean.” So I expect at some point to be sifting through two or three hundred ideas, out of which we’ll probably choose half a dozen. We’ll say these are the most real, these are the most important, and these will inform and improve and develop everything we want to do here at NEC, all as a result of collaborations and partnerships.

I think collaborations and partnerships are really the watchword for any organization that wants to be outward looking, that wants to be relevant in their community. We can benefit greatly from the synergies — to use that old word — and economies of scale that can happen as a result of having those intense discussions with outside organizations. We can start investigating directions we wouldn’t have thought of, that will come about as part of a creative process with another organization. This has to be seen as unbelievably important to us.

Do you think there are any such organizations with which we have a natural synergy?

Well the opera companies, let’s take that as an example. We have two very good opera companies here — Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Boston — and we are just now thinking of working with them.

And one does not exclude the other?

No, not at all. And that could make us a far more attractive organization in terms of recruiting students at an even higher level. It could make us far more attractive within the community, because the community wants to see a connection between us and what’s happening with the two really strong professional companies out there.

What sort of things came up in your recent meeting with Boston’s Mayor Menino?

Looking at some big ideas — one of the things we talked about was the example of Venezuela’s El Sistema, the educational system that produced the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, whose visit NEC hosted this fall, with wonderful success. And what this visit taught everyone about the huge power of music in a developing country, and how we in the developed world have maybe lost sight of how unbelievably strong music’s power can be to effect social change.

That is how music has been positioned and used in Venezuela, for social change, transforming the lives of the underprivileged, street children, kids at risk, by giving them that interactive, soul-expanding experience of having an instrument, performing, playing, teaching. It’s a cascading effect: if at age five you start learning the clarinet or violin, by the age of ten you’ve got skills, which you then pass on to the next person who’s age five, and so it goes on as a replicating supportive system, that feeds upon itself.

So what could we learn from that? I think we have the need in Boston for this to be seen as a big idea for the future. And it would be wonderful to think of NEC taking a leadership role in that. We’d need to do a great deal of work in order for that to happen, and we’d have to rely upon some very very strong partnerships and collaborations. But I do not see this as being out of the question at all.

What they’re doing in Los Angeles with the El Sistema model is limited, because they’re basically saying this is about youth orchestras, and it’s not. The youth orchestra is the vehicle that comes out of the process. I’m more interested in the process. I’m more interested in the revolution of music, and how we can go back to the roots of music and see how it can change a family, change a kid’s complete behavior, change the father’s behavior because he’s proud of his son playing the trumpet in an orchestra. I think that the youth orchestra element just happens as a result of that. But it’s the intense personal interconnection that’s far more important.

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra

I think the interactive relationship with music on whatever level it might be — whether it’s with an instrument or whether it’s singing — allows you to touch something not just within yourself but something that’s within the art form, within the music itself, which is transformative. I think music is a very subversive art form, it actually is very very revolutionary. It really can stop you in your tracks, and make you look at the world differently, and can make you a very different person.

I love listening to audiences speak about what they’ve just heard and experienced. When the Bolívar Orchestra played in Symphony Hall, people were truly astonished. I maintain that the reason that everyone was so “gobsmacked” — as we would say in England — was that it reminded people of what performances should be about.

Those listeners were experiencing a level of intensity and electricity and excitement that they rarely encounter in a typical professional concert with its good, very competent playing. It reminded us of the power of music, the power of live performance, the power of what young people can do. All of that coalesced into an experience that raised the bar in terms of what we should be demanding.

With Venezuela fresh in our minds, what changes do we see in the world our students will be living in? What are the challenges as they emerge from musical training today?

Western cultural hegemony in the next twenty to thirty years will change. Should we be scared and frightened and threatened by it? I don’t think so, it’s just part of the natural evolution and the cycles that happen. We’ve always seen Western culture as the dominant world culture, that’s part of our Western arrogance. I think it will become part of many cultures that the world will need to embrace. And as we see the economic powers of South America and India and China gathering steam, as we see the demographics in a country like America change and Europe change, it’s just the direction we want to go in.

I would suggest that within the lifetimes of our musicians the method of employment, the structure of employment will change hugely. The idea of people having salaried jobs and benefits will go, and people will be employed as contractors by firms and organizations on a global basis. I think that’s the model that we’re moving towards.

Do you think this is because of the way the orchestra world specifically works?

No, I’m not focusing upon the orchestra or even the musical world. I’m focusing upon work in general. The world will demand different skills from all of us. The world will demand a high level of skills competency, intelligence, and ability, and it will demand a way of packaging what you can offer in a very businesslike and entrepreneurial way.

Bringing this back to the world of professional musicians, I think that the dominance of the large performing arts organizations is also going to change hugely. By which I mean the big orchestras, the big opera companies, and the way that communities see those organizations. I think as generations change, each generation will look at the importance of those organizations very differently. Future support may be quite parlous as the leadership of philanthropies changes hands and priorities.

Large organizations with big budgets tend always to be very conservative. Yet, the word on the street is that if you’re going to be successful in the future, you’ve got to be creative and you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to be fast on your feet. And it’s very difficult when you have a huge, huge salary structure — fixed costs that are seventy to eighty percent of your budget — to have that level of flexibility.

Once upon a time, those huge organizations were the major vehicle that people relied upon to get their artistic experiences. That has moved significantly today. We see it with how people use recordings, how they use their iPods, how they download information, how they download recordings. They won’t necessarily be thinking of attending a performance. But they will want to have a relationship with music that’s important to them, on their own wavelength, on their own basis for experience. The weighty huge performing collossi out there will find it very difficult to attract that audience. By contrast, there will be a huge market for those musical entrepreneurs who are being very creative in a reinvention of the way that they present music.

What are you seeing now that you think works in that regard?

Just to give a random example: I was over in the Prudential Center recently and thought I was hearing canned music, but I finally came across a string quartet, dressed in idiosyncratic holiday style, beautifully amplified, playing their own arrangements of Christmas music, with CDs for sale. You might think “it’s just commercial stuff,” but I was thinking that it was absolutely astonishing that these young kids — they looked eighteen or nineteen — had obviously sat down and thought, “OK this is the direction I want to go in,” It may lead nowhere, but the fact that they had done it so professionally and had presented themselves with such high production values was astonishing.

Once upon a time we would all have said “Oh just put a string quartet out,” and it would sort of happen. Here you were talking about communication, you were talking about presentation. And however they did it, these kids deserved an A-plus for getting it right for that passing audience they had. I hope that they did a great deal of business as a result. The arrangements were very original. People were stopping to listen.

I see a similar example of entrepreneurship in a far cry, the new chamber orchestra created by NEC string players. Their programming ranges from Handel and Quantz to Tchaikovsky and Pärt. They have a sophisticated Web site, illustrated with imaginative photos. You can even order your tickets online.

Midori in Vietnam

However, even on a very elite professional plane, there are examples of a new kind of creative, intense, communicative presentation. I’m reminded particularly of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and Midori’s Music Sharing program, which has taken her to new audiences in Vietnam. So this type of musical entrepreneurship can happen at any level.

These are the things we must take into account as we go into NEC’s strategic planning for the future. The environment has changed, the world has changed, our competition has changed, our financial situation has changed, the demand for what we do has changed — nothing is the same. We’ve got a world that is moving significantly in the shortest period of time, compared with how the world would have changed two or three hundred years ago. So having a really strong road map — NEC’s Strategic Plan — and an understanding within the organization of why we need that road map is critical to our success.

People get a little bit baffled about the strategic planning process. “Why do we need to have it every few years, all the same questions are asked?” One of the stories I tell to put that in context is one from when Einstein was teaching at Princeton. Einstein was visited by a student who said, “The questions on this year’s exam are the same as last year’s!” to which Einstein replied: “Yes, but this year all the answers are different.”

So, I think we have to look at our future in a world context. We mustn’t be inward-looking as an organization, we mustn’t think what we do in Jordan Hall and what we do in the studio is the end result. It’s an amazing result, but it has to be applied. It’s the application of that to the outside world that has to be considered.

Every year, when our students graduate, most of them are not going to stay in the bubble of Boston, are they? Some of them will stay here. Others might go back to their own countries. Still others might go back to their home across the States, wherever it might be. But they’re going to go back into a very very different environment, and they’re going to be experiencing the world changing around them.

And it’s our job to help them find their way there?

I think it should be up to us to provide them with the essential skills that will allow them to be successful in whatever route they go for in their career, and allow them to use their enormous passion for music to lead the future of the art form.

NEC’s students are already very distinctive, then they come here and are trained and molded in a really positive way. We’re thinking not just about practicing but about the intellectual side of a musician’s personality as well, which we do so well with our liberal arts program. If we can extend that framework so we provide them with yet more skills, then the even stronger distinctiveness of who and what we are producing will become a theme, a signature for NEC.

This is an exciting time to be with NEC. We have people here making brilliant music who, with their great worldliness and versatility, have the potential to meet any of the challenges they will face outside. They have the potential not only to succeed personally, but in doing so to transform the world through their music.