NEW YORK — In 1959, a young violin prodigy named Itzhak Perlman left his native Israel for the Juilliard School in New York. Then as now, “it has the best reputation,” he explained.
The venerable New York conservatory, which turns 100 this year, has trained generations of virtuosos, stars of music, cinema and dance — from jazz great Miles Davis to beloved actor Robin Williams; to maestro James Levine of New York’s Metropolitan Opera; to Hollywood’s most decorated composer, John Williams.
New York is marking the anniversary with exhibits and concerts throughout the year, while Juilliard ensembles are taking the birthday party on tour to Europe. The Empire State Building will be illuminated in Juilliard School colors on Oct. 11.
“I was 13 when I came from Israel, and immediately, I went to this school,” Mr. Perlman says.
The son of a barber, Mr. Perlman was given a scholarship and immersed himself in the all-around sound of the school.
“The teachers were the best. [Ivan] Galamian was teaching here, then Dorothy DeLay, who I worked with … . It was a new experience for me, there was an orchestra, chamber music … . In Israel I just took my violin lessons.”
Juilliard was founded in 1905 by Frank Damrosch, the godson of composer Franz Liszt, who wanted to offer Americans the same quality of training that could be had in European conservatories. The school’s reputation swiftly spread beyond American shores, however.
Today, foreigners make up a third of the student body. Over time, the young artists from abroad have reflected the tides of history: Germans, Irish, Jews of Central Europe, Koreans and Japanese in the 1970s, and now Chinese.
For four years, an elite coterie of students — just 7 percent of applicants are admitted — compete and cross-pollinate in the heart of Lincoln Center, the huge cultural center the school has shared since 1969 with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic.
The school boasts 250 Steinway pianos, six stages and a recording studio. It’s a mecca not only for music, but for dance and the dramatic arts. Portraits of actors Val Kilmer and Kevin Spacey hang next to the likeness of composer William Schuman in its halls.
For Joseph W. Polisi, Juilliard’s president for 21 years, the school owes its reputation in part to “the mixture of entrepreneurial and artistic ventures [that] has allowed us to be visible to the world, through touring, and special programs.”
Juilliard’s orchestra was the first ensemble from a Western conservatory to tour China, in 1987, for example.
With its prestigious past and prime location in the heart of the U.S. cultural capital, Juilliard also enjoys a level of economic backing that enables it to offer merit and need-based scholarships to students, Mr. Polisi says.
In an era when America is as entranced as never before by its pop culture, “our young artists have to be missionaries and leaders for changing the arts and its environment in the future and making it more accessible to the population,” Mr. Polisi says.
“Everybody believes that ‘American Idol’ is the ultimate level for musical achievement, when we know there are many other levels of non-pop experience that are quite extraordinary,” he adds, referring to the talent-search television show that just wrapped its fourth blockbuster season.
For the cultural elite, Juilliard represents “where the teachers are, that’s where you go,” Mr. Perlman explains.
Through the years they have included opera diva Maria Callas and her famous master classes, and William Vacchiano, now 93, who taught trumpeters Mr. Davis and Wynton Marsalis during his 67 years at Juilliard.
“Why this reputation? Because it attracts the best students,” says Melody Fader, 29, a pianist who left after two years at the school.
“It is so professional; everybody is so good. What is hard is the competition, and you don’t get a lot of individual attention,” she says.
Miss Fader later returned for a master’s degree.
“When I came back, I was more ready for it, and my experience from my master was very good. The best thing about it was my teacher,” she says.
Soprano Leontyne Price, who became the first internationally acclaimed black opera star in the late 1950s after graduating from Juilliard, still cherishes her teacher.
“My beloved Florence Page Kimball, who taught me to sing well, who accepted me. When I sing, she’s still with me,” Miss Price says.