The worries of the college president traditionally run to endowments, academic accreditation, the budget and football tickets for the alumni. When Emil Danenberg took over small, prestigious Oberlin College in Ohio a year ago, he added another—time enough to practice the piano.
Danenberg, 58, is celebrated not only as a teacher—he headed Oberlin’s Music Conservatory for five years—but as a concert artist as well. He recently appeared as soloist with the Oberlin-based New Hungarian Quartet in his first New York recital since assuming the school’s presidency (and the fifth of his career). After a previous appearance, a New York Times critic praised Danenberg’s “graceful virtuosity, commanding technique and flair and fire.”
Harmonizing budgets with Brahms “isn’t easy,” the president admits. “It’s all in the pacing. You have to make up your mind not to take home a bundle of work at certain crucial times. You learn to restructure your work habits.”
What makes Danenberg’s achievements all the more remarkable is that doctors were afraid he might be doomed to paraplegia after a college gymnasium accident in the early ’40s. A vertebra in his neck had to be removed and replaced with a bone graft from his hip. The operation was a success, but Danenberg’s neck was frozen into a permanent chin-on-chest position, which he chose over any other so he could continue to play the piano.
Danenberg was named president after an Oberlin search committee scoured the country for 15 months. He sees nothing unusual in his dual role. “I guess there isn’t a plethora of musical college presidents,” he says. “But, after all, historians and mathematicians who become college presidents do research papers or books during their presidency. Musicians also develop disciplines that help in carrying out administrative duties.”
Danenberg says it takes a minimum of 10 to 12 hours weekly—he formerly practiced up to 30 hours—”just to keep my fingers synchronized with my brain. Performing is my way of keeping my hands in the music world now that I’m not teaching.” Danenberg’s hands have rarely been idle. Born in Hong Kong of German, English and Portuguese descent, he gave his first recital at age 5 and was playing two-piano duets with his father by age 7.
Danenberg proved to be no Johnny-one-note. Although his personal tastes run to Ravel and Debussy, he recalls that while studying at UCLA, “I grubbed around the rubber chicken circuit playing pop and jazz for $25 a crack. We’d do the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and get a free meal thrown in.” As a onetime student of Arnold Schoenberg, he is equally at home with contemporary composers—and has even championed computer-generated scores. Under his direction, Oberlin’s Music Conservatory saw a 30 percent increase in applications.
Danenberg’s Renaissance approach to living includes an enthusiasm for sports, travel and fine food. Yet on a recent Saturday, in what he calls his “refuge”—a third-floor conservatory studio—a brown bag sat next to the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor. Its contents? “I have eaten the best cuisine in France, visited gastronomic temples the world over. I wish it were pâté de foie gras,” Danenberg grinned, “but it’s ham on rye with lots of mustard.”