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The Evolution of
Kaufman Music Center Under Executive Director
Lydia Kontos

Posted on Friday, October 27, 2017

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In January of 1979, Lydia Kontos, then a public relations consultant with a background in concert management, joined the staff of The Hebrew Arts School for Music and Dance as a member of the administrative team of the brand-new concert hall at the Abraham Goodman House. In 1982, she was named director of the hall – now called Merkin Concert Hall, one of New York City’s premier stages for contemporary classical music, and the favored stage for chamber music and many other performances. In mid-1985, Lydia was appointed to succeed the Hebrew Arts School’s founder as Executive Director.

The institution was founded in 1952 by Dr. Tzipora H. Jochsberger as the Hebrew Arts School for Music and Dance. After renting space in its early years, the institution moved to its permanent home, the Abraham Goodman House, on West 67th Street – an achievement made possible because of the generosity of longtime Trustee Abraham Goodman. The institution was renamed the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center in 1991 in honor of a major gift from New York philanthropists Elaine and Henry Kaufman. At the same time, the original Hebrew Arts School was renamed Lucy Moses School recognizing a major gift from the Henry and Lucy Moses Fund. Today, Kaufman Music Center hosts 75,000 visitors annually and houses two performance spaces: Merkin Concert Hall and Ann Goodman Recital Hall.

Kaufman Music Center is proud that many of the donors from its earliest years remain champions its mission today. Abraham Goodman’s son Leonard Goodman is Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees, and many members of the Goodman family continue their involvement, demonstrating a commitment that has endured for more than 60 years. Elaine Kaufman is Honorary Chairman of the Board of Trustees and an active member of the Gala Planning Committee. Solomon Merkin is also a member of the Board of Trustees, continuing his family’s legacy of support. Tzipora Jochsberger also remains a close friend of the Center, at 96 years of age.

For nearly four decades, Lydia has worked with these generous donors and many others to raise millions of dollars in support of Kaufman Music Center’s performance and education programs. Elaine Kaufman says: “during the past 35 years, Lydia and I have not only had a close professional relationship, but a close friendship as well. When Henry and I decided to make our first major gift to the Center, it was because we trusted her leadership. And these many years later, I continue to find that trust was well-founded.”

Lydia said that when she first took the reins, overseeing operations at the concert hall and then for the overall organization at just 34 years of age, it was “all about finding enough money to survive in our new building on West 67th Street, the Abraham Goodman House. We had a wonderful concert hall, many spaces that we couldn’t fill, and a need to keep heat, staffing and maintenance going 24/7. It was an ongoing struggle for a few years, and some folks wondered if we could make it. I knew we needed to be fearless, dedicated and deeply involved in our mission in order to get where we needed to be.”

She knew the raw material was there for a great future: “a spectacular building perfectly suited for arts study, a wonderful faculty, so many wonderful musicians yearning for the perfect stage.” And she was intrepid, building up a similar-minded team of artistic staff and collaborators who understood the mission and were not afraid to jump in.

In one of the boldest moves of her tenure, Lydia, a former classroom teacher and “a very average piano student,” worked with Kaufman’s Board to partner with the New York City Department of Education to create Special Music School/P.S. 859, the only public K-8 school in the city for musically gifted children, combining a rigorous academic program with intensive instrumental instruction.

The school was inspired by an article Lydia read by distinguished pianist Vladimir Feltsman, as well as by a report issued by U.S. Department of Education in 1993, which found that, “Youngsters [in the United States] with gifts and talents that range from mathematical to musical are still not challenged to work to their full potential...As the nation strives to improve its schools, the concerns of students with outstanding talents must not be ignored.”

Lydia compiled a team to devise a ground-breaking talent identification system so that children of all backgrounds would have a chance to be admitted to Special Music School. It opened in 1996, and in 2013, it expanded to include a high school, again the only one of its kind in New York. The partnership has paid off with impressive results. Drawing on the well-researched benefits of the study of music, SMS is regularly one of the top schools in the city, and state, when measured by scores on the English and Math Proficiency Exams. In 2017, 100% of SMS students achieved proficiency on both exams, and SMS ranked as the #1 elementary and middle school in New York State. This year, 100% of the high school's senior class graduated, and all applicants were admitted to colleges or conservatories.

Mrs. Kontos also points with pride to Kaufman’s “rescue” of Opus 118 Harlem School of Music in 2012. “This incredibly wonderful program, founded by Roberta Guaspari and well-known because of the documentary film ‘Small Wonders,’ and the feature film, ‘Music of the Heart’ was inconceivably about to fold when Roberta approached me,” she recalled. “Kaufman was seeking a better way to serve children in neighborhoods that did not have easy access to Broadway and 67th Street, and here was a venerable program that only needed rescuing – we didn’t have to build from scratch, just put our efforts into creating a sustainable model for Opus 118. Imagine, in the ‘80’s we desperately needed rescuing. This was a way to pay it forward and to do so much for those kids.” Opus 118 is now an independent subsidiary of Kaufman Music Center.

On the performance side, Merkin Concert Hall’s innovative programming, intimate scale and near- perfect acoustics have earned it a reputation as one of New York City’s finest concert venues. Noted in the New York Times for its “reputation for avant-gardism of a cool and cerebral nature,” Merkin presents adventurous work—including many world premieres—by contemporary composers and some of today’s most acclaimed and inspiring performers.

Kaufman Music Center’s Ecstatic Music Festival, a trailblazing new music series hailed as “the alt-classical world’s main showcase” by the New York Times, was the brainchild of Lydia in collaboration with Kaufman educators and curators. In addition to cutting-edge new music, Merkin presents some of the best new talents in the classical world, celebrations of musical theater with Broadway’s top professionals and lively musical reviews for children and families.

Also of particular note, Lydia cited Face the Music, established in 2005 by two Kaufman Music Center teachers and which is the country’s only youth and teen ensemble dedicated to studying and performing experimental, new-classical, new-jazz and avant-garde music written exclusively by living composers. Face the Music, which has more than 125 members ages 10-18, in an array of groups, has received rave reviews in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and numerous other publications for the quality and originality of its performances. 

“Most notably,” said Lydia, “the excitement of the group comes from the amazing number of performance opportunities in myriad venues throughout the city – and occasionally beyond that, like Washington, D.C. and Paris, France. The music is the raw material, and the real learning experience is about all of those performances.”

More recently, Lydia championed the launch of Luna Composition Lab as part of Face the Music: a collaboration with founders Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid that is a one-of-a-kind program for aspiring female composers to receive one-on-one mentorship, instant access to a network of professional performers and composers, and the chance to meet other aspiring young female composers. The students are paired with mentors, each a highly successful professional female composer, to nurture their talents and help pave the way for them in an industry in which women are few and far between.

Lydia will be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Kaufman Music Center's 2018 Gala on May 14 at Guastavino's.

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