Former Associate Principal Bassist of the New York Philharmonic and Very Young Composers program founder, Jon Deak, opens up to PEOPLE about his passion to empower young students

By Yvonne Juris
September 08, 2017 01:15 PM
Jon Deak bassistCredit: Chris Lee
Credit: Chris Lee

Sitting in an office in the David Geffen Hall — home to the New York Philharmonic — venerated bassist, composer and founder of the Very Young Composers program, Jon Deak, is discussing his recent excursion to Wyoming to observe the full splendor of the solar eclipse. He mentions that while standing in a field to watch the celestial event, his attention was momentarily shifted to a sprig of wheat, which led him to ponder the harmony and interconnectedness between the elements of nature. As the expanse suddenly got dark, with mixed shades of purple being cast across the sky, Deak says he was suddenly overcome with the magnificence of the phenomenon.

Such musings might be more commonly associated with the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, but for this consummate musician and education reformer, thoughts about unity are commonplace for a man who spends a great deal of time thinking about how he can create more opportunities in the arts for children across the globe.

An Indiana native, Deak was educated at Oberlin College and the Julliard School, and was also a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed him to study and teach music in the Santa Cecelia Conservatory in Rome, from 1967 until 1968.

Five years later, in 1973, Deak landed a spot with the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Credit: CBS via Getty

But during his tenure as an associate principal bassist with one of the greatest in-house orchestras in the world, Deak says he would often think about where the future of music was headed.

“As a composer, I’m thinking — where is the new music coming from?” Deak , 74, tells PEOPLE. “This world needs rejuvenating because a lot of the music has (already) been written.”

Operating off of the idea that the symphonic repertoire needed a “refreshing take” that could better fit contemporary society as well as expand the traditional staples of the classical canon — Beethoven, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Brahms and Debussy — Deak formed a program that may just find the next young Mozart.

But instead of this supposed budding composer hailing from a well-known conservatory, Deak was convinced he or she could come from the inner-city area with no prior training whatsoever in music.

In 1995 — after receiving an offer to become the composer-in-residence for the Denver Philharmonic — Deak spearheaded the Very Young Composers (VYC) program in Denver. (Deak has composed over 300 works, including his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, “The Headless Horseman,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.)

His unwavering commitment to this program eventually led him to leave the NY Phil in 2009, so that he could devote all his time and energy to his new program and its students.

Credit: Jon Deak

Flash forward eight years — where chapters have been established in 14 countries, including China, South Korea, Venezuela, and the Netherlands—and the efforts of this Renaissance man can be seen in the extensive outreach of the program. (Upcoming centers are to be placed in the Middle East.)

“We purposely go into diverse areas,” says the composer. Many domestic participants in the program come from low-income areas, which Deak says is part of the VYC’s mission of providing access to those that normally wouldn’t have it.

“I need to go into the neighborhoods where kids otherwise would never have the opportunity to do this kind of work, because they lack encouragement and access.”

The composer and bassist — who has four children of his own and is married to wife Jackie Mullen — says he is astounded by the quality of work that his students, many of whom had never been exposed to classical music before their enrollment in the VYC, are able to bring to the table.

“We are not doing this to be politically correct. Not at all,” says Deak of his annual program. “I have a self-interest in this because those kids write some great music. When they’re given a chance, they come up with these amazing rhythms and melodies and harmonies.”

The VYC is fully immersive, with a more holistic approach to the idea of studying musical composing underlying the daily operations for program participants. Students generally begin between the ages of 8 to 10, with exposure to ear training, singing, theory and classical, jazz and world music. He also has implemented a new addition known as The Bridge program — much in the style of the El Sistema initiated in Venezuela that allows older students to mentor and train beginners.

After some group courses, a student can begin their first forays into composing — a somewhat radical idea in the classical world, which has strongly rested upon a strong tradition and emphasis on training and mastery of technique prior to writing music. But he isn’t interested in whether a student can locate a “middle C” or recite the names of the pillars of classical music.

He’s interested in whether they share his undying love for music.

“We don’t exactly turn it on its head by saying creativity first and technique later, but we put it side by side,” Deak says. He challenges the notion that you have to “be a technical master” before being “allowed to express yourself emotionally.”

While his idea has created some rifts among those in the classical realm, he says many have come to see merit in his unconventional approach, namely because of the untold opportunities the program has provided to its participants.

When students start composing, they often portray “miniature self-portraits of themselves” he says, which makes it imperative that all participants feel safe and encouraged, as he finds that some of his students don’t always get the positive reinforcement in their day-to-day activities.

“When they expose a vulnerable layer of themselves that they may not even be able to deal with on a verbal or articulate basis,” their work is always encouraged, Deak says.”[So] whatever comes out in that time is okay. It’s approved. It’s valued.”

Part of the perks of being part of the VYC is the affiliation with the New York Philharmonic — which helps provide some financial assistance through its benefactors. Students not only get to meet members of this high-profile orchestra, but they also have a chance to have their pieces performed by them. And some get to travel to other countries, where they have the opportunity to work with international students.

Credit: Jon Deak

In July, Deak, members of the orchestra and some VYC participants took a trip to Shanghai, where students got to work with members of the Shanghai Orchestra Academy. Works from VYC students were also showcased, with some of the pieces featuring hip-hop styled rhythms.

That sort of creativity is just fine with Deak, who calls hip-hop the “music of the street,” adding that a lot of that music has a “vitality that is unbeatable.”

During our talk, Deak takes out a date book with pictures of his students and teaching artists glued onto the cover. Coordinating the schedule for the hundreds of students in his program, as well as the endless fundraisers he has to host are not necessarily his forte, but his need to mentor as many of the VYC students as he can, definitely is.

This revolutionary program is part of an undercurrent that is now present in classical music.

Alan Gilbert — who just stepped down as the artistic director of the NY Phil in May to head an international orchestra— has made extraordinary strides to expand the classical canon through his programming for the New York orchestra.

For his final concert series, Gilbert, 50, had works from Syria and Spain featured alongside Mahler’s beloved Seventh Symphony, for a program dubbed “A Concert for Unity.” (Yo-Yo Ma and members of his Silk Road Ensemble, as well as trumpet icon Wynton Marsalis, were also part of the program.)

Gilbert’s efforts to diversify and expand can be seen through his adventurous programming in the span of his eight-year tenure as director of the NY Philharmonic, creating events such as “Art of the Score,” which paired visuals with classical works.

Deak says that Gilbert has also been very supportive of the Very Young Composer’s program, and has even participated in events with Deak and his young students. Gilbert had additionally worked with the NY Philharmonic’s Global Academy, which aims to provide young students with the opportunity to receive classical training from some of the world’s most in-demand classical musicians.

All of these initiatives may be ushering in a new era of ‘classical’ music. But for now, we’ll have to see what these young composers write in the upcoming winter season of the VYC.