On Jan. 24, after a year-long search for new leadership, the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society announced Matthew VanBesien, current executive director of the New York Philharmonic, will serve as its seventh president. VanBesien will assume the position, currently held by Kenneth Fischer, in July.
After 30 years as president, Fischer kept his distance from the search committee, focusing on his last season with UMS. The 2016-2017 UMS performers include the Berlin Philharmonic, Batsheva Dance Company, Meredith Monk and Yo-Yo Ma.
Fischer has been the president of UMS since 1987. Since then, the organization quadrupled its budget, established stronger engagement between the University and the local community, and became the only University arts presenter to receive the National Medal of Arts from former President Barack Obama.
“In a University that honors and is committed to diversity by all the things that measure diversity — where people come from, their ethnic heritage, what their interests are, sexual orientation — I want students to see the Musical Society as part of what they can be proud of,” Fischer said. “We want students to come and learn about the world by experiencing what it is we bring to the stage.”
When Aaron Dworkin, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, was a student at the University, Fischer was a mentor in his career-building. Dworkin said he benefitted in his personal professional development, as well as organizational benefits, from Fischer’s leadership once he became dean.
“It’s incredibly honoring and exciting to be part of bringing some voice to this new transition,” Dworkin said. “I’m so excited that Matthew will succeed. No one can replace Ken, but someone can succeed Ken. As I think around the world, I can think of no one better.”
VanBesien echoed Dworkin’s sentiments.
“I think item number one is to uphold a legacy of Ken and all that he has done during his time there,” VanBesien said. “The UMS team is staggeringly good. They’re great colleagues, they’re great people and are great at what they do. So what I hope to bring to the equation is some additional perspectives from my own career — not only work and think creatively together about what the next chapter for UMS will be, but what it’ll be for the University of Michigan, for Ann Arbor and southeast Michigan.”
Fischer emphasized the alignment of VanBesien’s vision with UMS’s goals.
“The Music Society is the oldest of our kind in the country at 138 years,” Fischer said. “His (New York Philharmonic) is the oldest orchestra in this country, so he has great appreciation for tradition. But he’s an innovator — he’s done interesting things with the New York Philharmonic and now he’s going to want to do the same sorts of things here and that’s what excites me.”
Music, Theatre & Dance junior Joshua Devries studies cello performance at the University and spoke about the new opportunities VanBesien’s leadership will bring.
“The New York Philharmonic is heavily involved in educational opportunities throughout New York, so knowing that the new UMS (director) will have those experiences and bring that perspective to UMS is a good sign,” Devries said.
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Annelisa Crabtree echoed Devries’ outlook on education. She said VanBesien’s experience could bring more residencies with global performing artists, which benefit students.
“I think it’s an awesome opportunity to have someone who’s coming from such a high caliber orchestra; the context and the name will only help UMS,” Crabtree said.
Fischer and VanBesien also have a common bond: they are both French horn players. This connection, according to Fischer, is an important part of the music community.
“Horn players have an automatic bond,” Fischer said. “It’s a tough instrument; we’ve all played our solos where we’ve botched them and that’s the way the instrument is. We’ve all suffered that. We hugged each other and bonded.”
Dworkin similarly said this type of common ground is a vital part of the leadership transition.
“I think that Matthew brings such a breadth of experience, not only as an arts leader and administrator of a huge, complex organization like the New York Phil, but also as a musician,” Dworkin said. “I think that he’ll bring a perspective that brings awareness of how to be strategic and how to achieve outcomes and goals organizationally, but have that be fueled by a true passion for the arts and a true passion for community.”
The continuation of educational experiences was echoed by graduate students as well. Second-year Art & Design graduate student Shohei Kobayashi spoke about past experiences meeting conductors and watching dress rehearsals for orchestras that UMS hosts.
“I think the New York Phil president hit the jackpot — it’s a remarkable opportunity,” he said. “Maybe his networking can bring in a different crowd, a different taste.”
First-year Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Jotaro Nakano said, as a new student to the school, he was constantly surprised with the orchestral line-up. “Recently, the Berlin Philharmonic came and we got to meet with the music director and participate in a master class,” he said. “I can’t imagine it being more than that, but I also know Berlin isn’t the only world-class orchestra.”
The pleasant surprise surrounding VanBesien’s decision to join UMS is not only present in students like Nakano and Kobayashi, but in the current UMS president himself.
“He’s coming for all the right reasons — there’s no scandal there, there’s no problem, he’s not running away from anything,” Fischer said. “I can’t imagine anybody as well-qualified and excited about the job, what it represents: our University, our community, my organization. Things are so strong here, and so welcoming here, that the head of the New York Philharmonic says ‘I’m coming to Ann Arbor.’ ”