“Karl likes big ideas.”
That’s what Ralph Blasting, dean of Fredonia’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, says about Dr. Karl Boelter, who stepped down as director of the School of Music in June and will join its teaching faculty this fall.
A crescendo of big ideas resonated through Mason Hall with Dr. Boelter at the helm. Some were already in their formative stages when he arrived in 2003. Others he led.
Just how big were they?
In the bricks-and-mortar category are the openings of Juliet J. Rosch Recital Hall in 2004; its adjoining sound recording suite in 2007, and the acoustically outstanding Robert and Marilyn Maytum Rehearsal Halls in 2010. Their collective investment tops $15 million.
Among Fredonia’s guest artists, none was more recognizable than Yo-Yo Ma. The campus and community savored the interactive master class and scholarship gala with the College Symphony Orchestra that the world-famous cellist presented.
Other internationally known artists included pianist Richard Goode, who performed at the new Steinway piano dedication; American soprano Dawn Upshaw, accompanied by pianist Gilbert Kalish; violin/fiddle virtuoso Mark O’Connor; and jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who also performed with the Fredonia Latin Jazz Ensemble.
Boelter’s tenure also included the return of successful alumni to campus. Roberta Guaspari, ’69 — the violinist and music educator whose herculean efforts saved Harlem’s string music programs — spoke at the 2008 School of Music Convocation. Her story was celebrated in the film, “Music of the Heart,” in which Meryl Streep portrayed Guaspari in the lead role. Tony Caramia, ’73, an Eastman School of Music professor of piano, played at the Sorel Steinway Dedication in 2007 and has returned several times since.
These artists and a host of other initiatives are linked by a common motivation: to enhance the educational experience of Fredonia’s students and raise the stature of the school that serves nearly 600 undergraduate and graduate students.
“Karl is one of the best administrators I’ve ever worked with,” Dean Blasting said. “He is completely focused on the students, so all the complicated decisions that a director has to manage — about finances, programming, curriculum, staffing facilities — are driven by what we think will be best for them. Karl is a collaborator, a diplomat and a great supporter of other people’s success.”
Blasting added that Boelter has also helped Fredonia increase its international recruiting and supported similar initiatives among the faculty.
“We have an internationally capable faculty and a diverse student body in the arts; Karl has been a big part of making that happen.”
Boelter has been a strong proponent of community outreach, getting Fredonia more widely known beyond Western New York. Student ensembles — which now number more than three dozen — tour New York and beyond each spring, giving concerts and conducting workshops. Members of the Fredonia Festival Chorale, under the direction of Dr. Gerald Gray, performed in Carnegie Hall in 2014.
At the international level, Fredonia ensembles have performed in China, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, among other countries.
Expanding student touring was a major objective identified at the 2010 Alumni Leadership Conference. The conference gave birth to an endowment fund dedicated exclusively to supporting ensemble tours.
Dr. Allan Dennis, ’70, co-founder of the Midwest Young Artist youth orchestra near Chicago, was impressed by the meticulous student evaluations that Boelter compiled while serving as a judge at the Walgreens Concerto Competition that his organization sponsors.
“I was taken with his ability to diagnose the students’ strengths/weaknesses concisely and then tactfully make excellent suggestions to address what each student needed to work on in the next step of their musical development,” said Dr. Dennis, the School of Music’s 2011 Convocation speaker.
Community Relations Assistant Jennifer Darrell-Sterbak has worked with Boelter on major public performances, guest artist residencies, ensemble touring and marketing. She has witnessed his ability to see the potential in any given situation.
“He listens and values the opinions of those around him, and I believe his foremost motivation in decision making is doing what he believes is best for the students,” she said.
Prior to joining Fredonia, the Milwaukee native taught at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala.; the University of Michigan; Kennesaw State College in Georgia; and Oakland University in Michigan. Fredonia was identified as an “aspirational model” by Boelter and his Oakland colleagues, who were in the midst of studying colleges that were succeeding in some initiatives that they were imagining for themselves.
“It was then that I learned that Fredonia was searching for a new director,” Boelter remembers. “I had to apply.”
During his interview, he marveled at Fredonia’s facilities — its concert hall, a proscenium theatre, an intimate recital hall and Rosch’s construction.
“I was aware that this was the result of decades of development — a sign of ongoing commitment,” he recalled. “I could tell then that this faculty likes what they do, and they really are for the students and their success. The administration made it very clear that the School of Music was a point of pride for the campus,” he added. “All these factors drew me in.”
Students are Fredonia’s greatest assets, Boelter said. “There is no question that some students come in with monstrous skills and readiness, but this faculty is very effective at getting the student with good, core talent to develop and grow and blossom.”
While the School of Music has remained loyal to its core programs of Music Education, Composition, Performance, Sound Recording Technology and Music Therapy, Boelter expanded community outreach.
“We have probably doubled the number of concerts, recitals and faculty and guest events,” he said. “The opening of Rosch is probably the major cause of this. It is a wonderful place to perform and hear music, and everyone knows it.”
At the same time, the school has become more oriented toward performance and a broader variety of performance and styles, from classical, jazz, and Latin music to African and Arabic styles, along with ventures into Indian and Balinese.
Another community initiative, Musical Journeys, offers private lessons taught by Fredonia students and early childhood music classes at the Campus and Community Children’s Center. The New Horizons Band enjoins community members of all musical abilities and Fredonia students.
“It’s a feast, you might say, and the students are better off for it,” he added.
Blasting was disappointed, of course, that Boelter has stepped down as director, but he is happy to have him remain as a professor of Composition, and for the year-long transition notice he gave. After playing a key role in establishing the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Boelter will continue to shepherd some curricular changes already underway.
“It doesn’t get any better than that for a dean,” Blasting assured.