Student Reflects on Professor's Life, Music
Unlike most of his current colleagues, but paralleling my own pre-college dilemma, Buswell chose Harvard over a music conservatory, believing that a “Harvard education develops a certain kind of critical intelligence, which stays with you throughout your life.”
Harvard continues to demand this level of analytical thinking, but students rarely consider adapting such skills to the musical sphere. During his 30 years in the classical music world, Buswell has learned to do just that.
Initially, Buswell struggled to strike the right balance between the hyper-directed mental focus of a performer and the disassociative analytical processes taught by Harvard. According to Buswell, one of the immediate downsides of a liberal arts education is that “you examine things to such a degree that it somewhat blunts your potency as a performer.”
Having struggled with this balance, I have learned much from Buswell’s insight. Looking back on his student years, he recollects that “your art becomes somewhat more questioning than assertive. Your self-assurance becomes less solid, in a healthy way.” He eventually learned to put the pieces back together, calling his experience “a digestive process. Once you can redevelop your own artistic personality, you come out much stronger and confident in the end.”
This confidence shone throughout Buswell’s chamber music recital at NEC’s Jordan Hall last Sunday night, which I and many other of his students attended. His ambitious and eclectic program, which included Stravinsky’s tongue-in-cheek Duo Concertante for Violin and Piano, Mendelssohn’s angst-ridden Piano Trio in C-Minor, Enesco’s Sonata No. 2, and Beethoven’s fiery Sonata No. 7, never showed a hint of musical timidity. Buswell first chose the Enesco, a lesser-known piece, and later added the other three works, which he called “old friends.”
Buswell embraced the fluctuations of the music, using the violin as a vehicle for his subtle artistic interpretation. Joining Buswell were his wife, cellist Carol Ou, and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu. In the Mendelssohn trio, the performers conveyed both the grand statements and the quiet nuances of the music, and their conversational demeanor on stage showed a simple joy of playing together. Liu’s quiet, thoughtful opening of the second movement of the Beethoven Sonata was another highlight. Throughout the recital, all three musicians demonstrated their mastery of both the musical concepts and the instrumental challenges.
Buswell’s formidable skills were developed during his Harvard years, where he made his musical presence known on campus. In addition to performing with both the Bach Society Orchestra and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, Buswell was a founding member of Music 180r, a popular performance class still offered in the Music department, notable for its intensity and faculty star Robinson Professor of Music Robert D. Levin ’68. As I navigate a similar path through Harvard’s classical music scene, I can still see the effects of his time here. During his junior year, Buswell was approached by a “very aggressive-looking man” by the name of Leon Kirchner. Kirchner, a composer and professor in the department, wanted to start a music performance course, but needed a student’s aid. Buswell became “an unofficial assistant of the class,” helping to coach his fellow musicians, while learning from Kirchner.
Even today, Buswell finds that teaching Harvard students is both mystifying and entertaining, saying that “if one can generalize at all, they develop these analytical tools about literature, and other disciplines they’re working on.”
That’s not to say that he never criticizes us. “For lots of Harvard students,” he declares, “when they sit down and practice their instruments, it’s therapy of some sort: they feel that they don’t have to use the same analytical tools. I find that amusing.”
Nevertheless, he discovers in his Harvard students a “wonderful crispness, quickness of mind, which I greatly appreciate as a teacher.” Buswell may no longer wander the Yard, but his legacy in the Harvard classical community is undeniable.