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School tries to lure top musicians, raise profile

When a teenager is considering a college, she usually visits the campus, sits in on classes, and hangs out with a few students. Not Yura Lee. The 18-year-old moved to Boston this fall without having set foot in the city.

She came to study violin with Miriam Fried, a nationally respected teacher recently hired by the New England Conservatory of Music.

Lee's is a familiar story in the world of ultracompetitive music conservatories, where attracting the best students -- Lee has already played with the New York Philharmonic -- can hinge on a single teacher.

Big-name hires are one way the New England Conservatory is trying to raise its profile after decades of struggling to keep up with the Juilliard School of Music in New York and other elite institutions with far larger endowments.

But hiring elite teachers won't come cheap. On Saturday night, as part of a gala celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school's Jordan Hall, the conservatory will officially kick off a $100 million fund-raising campaign.

About $41 million has already been promised, including an unprecedented $10 million gift from Peter M. Nicholas, chairman of Boston Scientific Corp. of Natick. The money will offer tuition relief and make it easier for the school to lure more teachers like Fried.

"We're clearly a very good school. But we're not tops, and we want to get as close in the country to being tops as we can," said David Scudder, chairman of the conservatory's fund-raising campaign.

Publicly, the New England Conservatory insists it can already compete with Juilliard, the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Under Daniel Steiner, who took over as president in 1999, the school has started hiring accomplished teachers like Fried, who was lured from Indiana University; Donald Weilerstein, founder of the prestigious Cleveland Quartet; and jazz pioneer Steve Lacy.

It has also increased financial aid. Four years ago, the average student at the New England Conservatory paid 72 cents of every tuition dollar. The rate is now 60 cents. Annual tuition at the school, which has 750 graduate and undergraduate students, is about $25,000.

But even the school's strongest supporters concede that it's hard to compete with the mystique of Juilliard, which finds its name dropped into Hollywood movies.

Financially, the New England Conservatory lags far behind its competitors in an essential area. Its $47 million endowment pales in comparison with Juilliard at $478 million, Eastman at $200 million, and Curtis at $110 million. Until the New England Conservatory can raise more money, it will continue to lose students like Huan-Wei Huang. The 18-year-old violinist was accepted to the Eastman Institute and the New England Conservatory.

Eastman offered to pay more than half his tuition, which is about $24,000. "NEC didn't offer any money," said Huang.

The New England Conservatory's capital campaign begins as many other local cultural institutions are also looking to raise money. But while others, including the Museum of Fine Arts and Institute of Contemporary Art, are planning new buildings or additions, the conservatory plans to put just $20 million of the $100 million it wants to raise into upgrading its facilities. Most of the money to be raised, $57.5 million, will go to the school's endowment. An additional $17.5 million will supplement the general operating budget over the next six years.

"Buildings are interesting, and naming opportunities are great," says Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard. "But the story of the financial need of young artists is a pretty compelling story."

To tell that story, the New England Conservatory's Steiner has been doing his best to romance potential donors and board members with the school's prime export: music.

He hosts regular dinners in the school's presidental library that feature performances before meals. He often sends guests to watch master classes. And every year, the conservatory hosts the Feast of Music, a six-course meal accompanied by musical performances by students and faculty.

Steiner is not the typical head of a music school. He served as Harvard University's general counsel from 1970 to 1992, but he has always loved music and in 1995 became a conservatory trustee.

Steiner agreed to fill in as president in 1999, after Robert Freeman resigned abruptly. Freeman, former director of Eastman, left after only two years when the school decided he wasn't the one to lead its long-term plan. In 2000, the New England Conservatory board decided to drop the word acting from Steiner's title.

"He's brought in a strong sense of leadership that's instilled confidence," said Nicholas, a longtime supporter of the school. "He's been able to raise intermediate money that has attracted scholars to the program. He's also been able to bring a sense of harmony and cohesion."

But more than harmony, Steiner has been able to bring star faculty to the school. In addition to Fried and Lacy, he has hired John Ferrillo, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's principal oboist; Jeanne Baxtresser, former solo flutist with the New York Philharmonic; and renowned voice teacher Patricia Misslin.

And Steiner didn't just hire Weilerstein; he found places at the school for two other founding members of the Cleveland Quartet, Paul and Martha Katz. He also was able to hire violist Kim Kashkashian.

Accomplished faculty members have drawn accomplished students. Karen Gomyo, who came to the conservatory to study under Weilerstein, has played with the National Symphony, toured Japan, and been featured on NPR.

Paul Katz had turned down offers to come to NEC in the past. This time, given the spate of high-profile hires, he couldn't resist.

"When NEC made the announcement that they had appointed Kim Kashkashian to the string faculty, that made a lot of people say, `Wow, how did they ever pull that off?' " Katz said.

Katz was also attracted by the conservatory's atmosphere.

"Juilliard is very much a mixed bag," he said. "There are wonderful people teaching there who are warm and supportive, but there's also kind of this old-school, cutthroat atmosphere, as well. Here there's a tremendously positive energy. I get this feeling that people really get along."

Steiner says that feeling -- that NEC is about cooperation, not reducing teenage prodigies to tears -- is intentional. During orientation, he addresses the school's students.

"I tell them, `I know a lot of you are very good, and it's natural to feel a sense of that competitive spirit,' " he said. " `But that is not really what this place is about. It's about creating an environment of support and an opportunity to take risk.' "

But Steiner has taken a tougher approach when it comes to the school's board. For too long, he believes, the conservatory has been content remaining in the shadows of other Boston institutions.

To end such reticence, he has been pressing more business leaders to get involved with the school. Examples of his success are the cochairmen of the Capital Campaign Steering Committee: Nicholas of Boston Scientific and Peter Lynch, vice chairman of Fidelity Investments.

"The MFA, the BSO, are prestigious boards," Steiner said. "Our board has been made up of people who love music. We have to change the perception of the school.

"My objective is to get NEC the same status in its field as Harvard. That's very doable, but we have to get the word out."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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