Amid allegations at Juilliard, classical music leaders demand change

Amid allegations at Juilliard, classical music leaders demand change

An open letter calling on the Juilliard School to take disciplinary action against composer Robert Beaser for alleged “decades-long abuse of women and power” has attracted the signatures of about 450 composers, musicians, educators and arts leaders.

By late Friday, after an initial 120 people had signed the letter, Beaser, 68, a former chair of the prestigious Manhattan music school’s composition department, had taken leave from his teaching post as the school launched a third-party inquiry into the allegations.

“In light of the ongoing investigation, and following discussions with Bob earlier this afternoon, we want to notify you that Bob will step away from his teaching duties and other faculty responsibilities while the investigation is being conducted,” Juilliard Provost Adam Meyer wrote in a letter to composition faculty members on Friday. “This change will be effective immediately.”

Last week, the Berlin-based classical music website VAN magazine published the results of a six-month investigation into allegations of misconduct against several Juilliard faculty members, including Beaser, who, the magazine said, “faces multiple, previously-undisclosed allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct from the late 1990s and 2000s.”

These include alleged “repeated sexual advances to sexual relationships with students,” as well as claims that these relationships directly affected critical decisions Beaser enacted as department chair at Juilliard.

The report cites the account of one anonymous former student who described an “instance in which Beaser offered her a promising career opportunity before attempting to obtain sexual favors in return.”

“What will you do for me?” Beaser allegedly asked.

“I am more than willing to participate in Juilliard’s outside investigation in order to protect and defend my reputation,” Beaser wrote Sunday in a statement to The Washington Post. “Until the school concludes this process, I have agreed to be on leave from my teaching position.”

The VAN story also included accounts of other abuses at the school, including claims from a student alleging uninvited advances by Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning composer and Juilliard professor Christopher Rouse, who died in 2019, as well as allegations against Juilliard professor John Corigliano, a longtime composer and faculty member accused by eight former Juilliard attendees for an alleged “unofficial policy” against taking on female students. (Corigliano denied the claims in an email to VAN.)

© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
Composer and Juilliard faculty member Robert Beaser, left, and the late composer Christopher Rouse, pictured here at the Composer Forum at the Juilliard School in 2016. (Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

The open letter — hosted on a Medium account attributed to “Composers Collective” — trained focus on Beaser.

“Though we recognize and appreciate the need for due process,” the letter reads, “the volume of allegations, testimony, and supporting evidence of Beaser’s misconduct are undeniably unsettling. Until the investigation is resolved, Beaser’s presence in the Juilliard composition department could jeopardize the emotional well-being of students and inhibit a safe and healthy learning environment.”

“Sexual discrimination and sexual harassment have no place in our school community,” wrote Rosalie Contreras, Juilliard vice president of public affairs, in a statement Saturday. “We take all such allegations extremely seriously.”

Although the VAN report was unable to confirm whether complaints from two students lodged against Beaser in 2018 ever led to Juilliard officials launching Title IX investigations, Contreras confirmed that internal investigations took place at the school “in the late ’90s as well as in 2017/18” but did not elaborate on their findings.

“Allegations that were previously reported to The Juilliard School were handled at the time, based on the information that was provided,” the statement reads. “However, in order to review new information and to better understand these past allegations, the school’s current administration has launched an independent investigation.”

Juilliard’s policy on faculty-student consensual relationships explicitly forbids relationships between faculty and undergraduates, and “discourages” them for graduate students.

“In addition to creating the potential for coercion, any such relationship jeopardizes the integrity of the education process by creating a conflict of interest and may impair the learning environment for other students.”

Students contacted for VAN’s report characterized Beaser’s conduct as being well beyond an “open secret,” and paint a picture of the overall climate for women enrolled at the prestigious music school as stubbornly toxic.

© DrewTommons/Birmingham Royal Ballet
Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, center, who is one of the voices behind the open letter. (Birmingham Royal Ballet)

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, who helped write and post the open letter Friday, is one of an alliance of anonymous female composers confronting the school’s alleged “long history of tolerating and covering up sexual misconduct and discrimination.” Snider assembled the coalition in the wake of #MeToo to provide a forum for female composers to discuss their own experiences of abuse and harassment in their profession.

Snider did not attend Juilliard, nor does she have any professional affiliation with it (in addition to working as a composer, Snider is also co-artistic director of New Amsterdam Records), but believes this distance from the institution — as well as the reach of its influence over composers’ careers — is what has given her the liberty “to speak on behalf of my many female colleagues who could not.”

She is also quick to point out that the scourge of sexual harassment within composition programs extends far beyond one school; it’s embedded deep into the culture of classical music education, she says. As a student, Snider had her own run-ins with sexual harassment at the hands of a powerful professor (whom she declines to identify) that she says continue to be “painful and traumatic.”

“That was the reason I got connected with these women in the first place,” she says. “I could really sympathize with what they’d been through and the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness, because it tends not to be about your abuser; it’s about the network of men at the top of our field who are friends and who protect each other. … If you come forward and name one person, you’re asking for retribution from basically a cabal of older, successful men who hold the keys to all the opportunities.”

Following the posting of the open letter, Snider has received notes from men at Juilliard who similarly feel unable to come forward for fear of retribution.

“They are the masters, and they are infallible, and they can make you or break you,” a male conservatory professor of composition who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution wrote to Snider in a text message shown to The Post. “Gatekeeping doesn’t even cover it.”

Composer Jefferson Friedman, who attended Juilliard from 1998 to 2001, then taught at the school for several years, left a comment on one of Snider’s recent Facebook posts in which he recalled feeling “actually afraid of [Beaser].”

“Did I know what Beaser was doing at the time?” Friedman wrote. “Yes, everyone did. Do I wish I had spoken up? In hindsight, of course, yes I do. But Beaser was the ultimate gatekeeper back then. … His entire deal has been creating a fiefdom where he has as much of a power imbalance as possible.”

As of Sunday, several high-profile names from across the classical and new-music fields had signed the open letter, including Missy Mazzoli, Gabriela Lena Frank, Vijay Iyer, Tyondai Braxton, Andrew Norman, Claire Chase and Nico Muhly.

Snider encountered particular trepidation from men in the music community, hesitant to sign for fear of retribution. Though sympathetic, the dissonance wasn’t lost.

“What I gently tried to tell them was that this is the same kind of fear that women have always had,” Snider says. “We’re so frequently harassed or mistreated or abused, and there’s no one to speak up about it to. Additionally, we then need to try to get those abusers to still like us enough to write letters of recommendation or to recommend us for prizes. It’s an impossible situation for women to advocate for themselves.”

By the signing deadline of 3 p.m. Friday, Snider says 90 percent of the men who had been on the fence came through at the last minute with signatures.

“I think they started to see that there’s more safety in numbers.”

Snider and the as-yet-unnamed coalition of composers are planning their first in-person strategic meeting in January to discuss further actions in directly addressing “intersectional” abuse and harassment across the composition community and classical music in general — where systemic inequities and imbalances have roots that run centuries deep.

“The positive thing to say about all of this,” Snider says, “is that it’s one of the very first times — maybe the first time in the history of our composition community — that men and women and people of all genders have come together to stand up and protect one another. It’s such a momentous occasion in our field, and I think it speaks volumes about the possibility for growth and change.”