Address to the UBC Congregation May 26th, 2004
by Robert Silverman

Mr. Chancellor, Madam President, members of the Board of Governors and the Senate, Distinguished Colleagues, Graduates and friends:

First of all, my heartiest congratulations to all of you who are receiving your degrees today. The word commencement (as these gatherings are often called) may signify birth or rebirth, but today’s ceremony also celebrates the successful conclusion of an important phase of your lives, and will surely remain a landmark event for you and your families, just as earning the DMA from ESM in 1970 was a landmark in my own musical education.

(That event was also a minor landmark in this country’s educational history, because as far as I know, I am the first Canadian pianist to have received that degree.)

However I feel it a far greater honour to receive this degree, especially after reading the distinguished list of my predecessors on this stage (a list which includes prime ministers, world-renowned spiritual leaders, writers, scholars, scientists and artists. Whereas the earlier one was the product of only three or four years of relatively hard work, this one recognizes a far greater expenditure of energy over three decades.

I consider myself fortunate to have spent the major part of my career at UBC.

The fact that I’m on this stage right now means that my talents have been recognized by my own institution, and believe me, that does not happen at all universities.

I’ve had the privilege of working with intelligent, gifted students from many parts of the world.

I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with wonderfully accomplished colleagues.

Of course, I am thankful for the opportunity to reside in one of the most livable and beautiful cities on earth.

But above all, I think of how lucky I have been to do what I love doing for most of my life, and even get paid for doing it in the bargain.

But enough about me.

I read a cartoon many years ago in the New Yorker (or was it Playboy?)

The recipient of an honorary degree at a gathering such as this says to the graduating class: “Okay, guys, now get out there and get yours!!” This is really not such bad advice: As a famous Talmudic scholar once said: “If you are not for yourself, who should be? And if not now, then when?”

But other than that -- and forgive me for speaking primarily to performing musicians in our midst -- I would like to observe that the field of music is so different now than it was when I graduated! Let me point out five factors contributing to this Brave New World:

  1. Those drastic government cutbacks to the arts in the 80s and 90s are here to stay. And what monies are earmarked for “culture” now must be shared by an ever-increasing number of diverse groups.
  2. The number of significant, approachable compositions in the concert repertory has remained virtually stagnant for about 50 years -- something that has never happened before. As a result, audiences have become automatically wary of contemporary music. Also, a boredom factor can occasionally creep in on both sides of the stage lights with respect to the finite number of works that are performed frequently.
  3. The perception exists in some intellectual and journalistic quarters that classical music is somehow tainted because over ninety-nine percent of the concert repertoire has been composed by white males of European heritage. One wonders what those critics make of the fact that many of today’s most celebrated interpreters of this repertoire are non-European women such as Midori, Mitsuko Uchida, Jessye Norman, and Kiri Te Kanawa, Or of the fact that Alexina Louie and Melissa Hui -- both UBC graduates, by the way --are two of this country’s most sought-after composers?
  4. Anyone attempting to attract younger listeners to classical music faces an almost insurmountable barrier, due to the formidable power of the commercial music establishment, which spends billions of dollars annually marketing something else, also called music.
  5. Finally, those who are smitten with classical music can purchase an iPod, download a pack of free mp3 files, and listen to the Chicago Symphony’s Mahler or Krystian Zimerman’s Chopin, often with better sound than many concert halls can provide.

Your work, therefore, is cut out for you: not only must you strive to perfect your art at a time when there are more phenomenal performers and singers in the marketplace than ever before, but your generation also faces the daunting task of re-inventing the means of finding your public and getting them to listen to you.

You can’t count on anyone from my generation to show you the way, either. The old models, which never really worked in quite the way we were told they worked, REALLY don’t work now.

Still, in spite of everything I have said, no true artist in our midst will be discouraged. Music will continue for as long as humans inhabit the planet: composers will compose and performers will perform. And in other fields, writers will write, painters will paint, and actors will act, because for them, doing so is the most important thing -- or even the only important thing in the world. You don’t choose art; it chooses you.

I wish you all productive, rewarding careers in the years ahead.