Two at the Top: Shaking up the suburban arts world
Aaron A. Flagg and Geneive Brown Metzger have landed at the top of the arts world in Westchester County, one of the many affluent suburbs of New York. How did they get there? Through their passion and life-altering relationships with music.
Reigning at the Conservatory: Aaron A. Flagg
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Aaron A. Flagg did not expect to live to be 30 years old, much less travel all over the world. Classical music changed all that. Flagg’s talent, commitment and passion as a classically trained jazz trumpeter led him to perform with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the New York and Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestras and such music greats as Wynton Marsalis, Gladys Knight and Roberta Flack. They also led him to become director of outreach at Juilliard and, last July, to the position he holds today: executive director of the Music Conservatory of Westchester in White Plains, N.Y. He is the first African-American to hold that position in the conservatory’s 77-year history.
The irony of a Black trumpet player from one of the most violent and impoverished cities in California reigning over a music conservatory in one of the most affluent suburbs of New York City is not lost on Flagg. It all started when he first heard Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony on the radio, he says. “As I listened, in my mind I saw fields, rivers and hills. And growing up in South Central, where I never saw meadows, sheep or brooks, the music let me see what he saw. It was an earth-shattering experience,” he says.
He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York’s Juilliard School and a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Michigan. Music gave him maturity and a passport to the world. It made him see life as others described it through their music, and it helped him communicate with people of different cultures. “To see people who did not speak my language but who could play music—music helped me communicate with [them],” he says.
And that, he says, is exactly what he wants his role at the conservatory to be: bringing people and music together.
The conservatory was founded in 1929 and provides a comprehensive, high-quality music education to students of all ages. A member of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, it is one of 18 non-degree-granting institutions accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. In addition to its theatre, summer programs and community services, the conservatory houses the only U.S. branch of Italy’s Renatta Scotto Opera Academy, named after the world-renowned opera singer, director and teacher of Italian vocal literature.
As the end of his first year at the helm of the conservatory approaches, Flagg is hard-pressed to point out major challenges in carrying out his role. More than anything, he relishes the opportunities the role has given him to work with a staff and with the community, he says. “One of the biggest opportunities has been to understand how people work to understand your message—getting your staff motivated and excited about the future,” he says. The one challenge, perhaps, was “staying calm through administrative changes.” Those “changes” involved the departure of the previous executive director, the dean and the director of development, and could have been devastating for the nonprofit conservatory. Instead, says Flagg, the crisis was “trumped by my optimism.” He was able to inject a new spirit and a new life into the conservatory.
Flagg plans to add two annual open houses to the lineup of programs in order to reintroduce the conservatory to the community and discover its likes, dislikes and wish list for the center. The next open house is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, October 21.
In the role of executive director, Flagg became a door-to-door salesman for the conservatory. As he introduced himself to businesses, churches, community centers, government officials and even gas station attendants, he realized that many people had no idea what the conservatory offered, while others considered it a “highfalutin” place where “uppity” music was played. “You cannot sit at your desk to learn about your community. We want to increase our community interaction and support any events that may require music—be they ribbon-cutting ceremonies, events at churches, schools, programs with the housing authority—to let people know we are here,” Flagg says.
While it also is important to help the conservatory realize its potential and build on its great reputation, Flagg notes that his personal goal is to offer what music gave him to children and adults of all backgrounds. “Music helped me grow personally and professionally. It showed me the world before I even got on a plane. Music made me compete and gave me the understanding of drive and commitment,” he says. “You have a choice of being the best in the world or the best in your neighborhood. And I chose to be a bad cat, a performer who reaches international levels.”
Celebrating Diasporan Art: Geneive Brown Metzger
While the Westchester Conservatory nurtures the innate human interest in music and the performing arts and the need to be creative, Geneive Brown Metzger provides an outlet for creative talent as founder of the One World Arts and Culture Fest of Westchester. Now in its second year, the festival is a four-day celebration that showcases the African-American, Caribbean and Latino diaspora’s contribution to film, music and all forms of art. This year’s festival will be held Sept. 13-17 at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, N.Y.
Artistic creativity connects us all as human beings, Metzger says. “Music not only expands our views of the world, but it also shows us our commonality,” says Metzger, who also is president of Geneive Brown Associates, a public relations firm in Westchester. “Through the fest I want to express the variety and richness in the diaspora. We want folks to see their community as rich and diverse and how it enriches the world around us.”
Metzger’s love of music began to bloom when she started playing the violin in her native Jamaica; she was 5 years old. Today she is as passionate about the music of Mozart as she is about the music of the late reggae artist Bob Marley. Two years ago in Peekskill she founded the Amadeus Circle, whose inaugural performance at the Paramount Center included Mozart’s Requiem.
Being able to appreciate and work with these two very different musical styles is a big part of who Metzger is. “I am what people call a hybrid. I love Marley. He was as equally important an artist as Mozart was. Marley became the music of freedom for people,” Metzger says. People have become “departmentalized” when it comes to their music and artistic interests, she says, and someone like her, who is passionate about many musical genres, is not the norm. “When you understand the expanding view of culture and music, you can love Mozart and Marley at the same time,” she says.