“Most of us have been here for a long time,” adds Mildred Dresselhaus HM, an Institute Professor with a joint appointment in physics and electrical engineering, “and we have a real commitment to science policy and, much more generally, to MIT.” Fulfilling that commitment to MIT, however, can sometimes entail commitments elsewhere. John Harbison spends his summers attending music festivals. Summer festivals play an important role in shaping the lives of young musicians, says Jean Rife, a lecturer in the music department, because they bring together people and ideas from all over the world. Harbison’s presence at festivals enriches not only the experience of those who attend but also the musical culture back at MIT. Harbison “brings a connection to the larger world of music, so we’re not small-time here. There’s a sophistication that he brings,” says Rife, who has worked with Harbison for more than three decades.
Harbison is popular at Tanglewood, where he directed a five-day festival last summer and spent several weeks coaching musicians and giving lectures. He can hardly walk ten feet without encountering an admiring student or a colleague eager to offer compliments or discuss a stylistic point from the rehearsal that’s still fresh in everyone’s ears. His energy and his curiosity about music seem endless as he darts around the Tanglewood campus in the Berkshires, visiting one rehearsal or concert after another. A performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet by high-school students elicits the same concentrated gaze and armchair conducting as the BSO’s performance of his own piece.
But Harbison’s enthusiasm isn’t just a summer fling; his passion for music is never missing in the classroom. What he enjoys most about teaching at MIT is the school’s emphasis on innovation, which he says is critical to the vitality of an art like classical music. “There’s a great respect for forward movement and for people to make things at MIT,” he says. And the students have a level of intensity and excitement that he says is hard to find, even at conservatories. MIT students aren’t studying music to become professional musicians; they’re doing it because they love music. And Harbison has no trouble keeping up, says Rife: “He brings the same energy he takes out to the rest of the world when he comes back to school.”
Collegial praise for the Institute Professors flows freely. A casual mention of Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus, for example, is almost always paired with a flattering parenthetical: “Millie Dresselhaus – superwoman.” “Millie Dresselhaus – she’s amazing.” Or “Millie – she’s a powerhouse.” “She’s just done amazingly innovative things in so many areas,” says Raymond Ashoori, a professor of physics. “She’s been president of every society that you can mention, and at the same time, I find her to be very patient with people and very supportive of people,” he says.