September 25, 2023

Alumni Spotlight:
Interview with Dr. Scott Dunn
(MM ’97), Classical Piano

by Justin Bischof (DMA ’98)Alumni Council Chair

Noted for his advocacy of American and contemporary music, conductor, arranger, and pianist Scott Dunn has a special interest in cross-over and film composers – ranging from George Gershwin and Richard Rodney Bennett to Leonard Rosenman and Danny Elfman.

As conductor, Dunn has served as Associate Conductor for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra since 2012 and previously held positions at Pittsburgh, Glimmerglass, and New York City Operas. He also serves as music director for the Parnassus Society and regularly presents opera in concert at the Soka Performing Arts Center with his Parnassus Society Orchestra.

Dunn’s interest in music outside the usual classical canon can be traced to his long friendship with the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. Through Bennett, Dunn discovered the concert works of songwriter and composer Vernon Duke (a.k.a. Vladimir Dukelsky) whose ‘lost’ piano concerto (written for Rubinstein) Dunn orchestrated and premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1999. Most recently, Stunt Records released the much anticipated and highly praised recording I Watch You Sleep, featuring Claire Martin and the Royal Philharmonic.

Born and raised in Iowa, Dunn studied piano with the legendary Byron Janis and is a former assistant to Lukas Foss – whose complete solo piano works Dunn recorded (Naxos, 2007). He has had a remarkably extensive education, which, in addition to music degrees, includes an M.D., residency and board certification in eye surgery.

Scott, you detoured from music into medicine (eye surgery) and then back into music. Can you share how that all came about?

Scott: I grew up in rural Iowa and began piano lessons at seven. I had wanted to study violin but there was no one to teach me. At ten years old, I started with an incredible teacher, Alice Hackett, in nearby Fort Dodge, Iowa who introduced me to classical music. She had studied with E. Robert Schmitz and Ernest Hutchison at Juilliard and, though elderly, went every summer to Salzburg to study with Carlo Zecchi. She was an amazing teacher and by age twelve I was making concerto appearances and winning competitions throughout the Midwest. I was passionate about pursuing a solo concert career but, being from rural America, I was innately ambivalent. I knew no professional musicians growing up.

I jumped on the offer of a full-ride music scholarship at the University of Iowa to study with John Simms and graduated summa cum laude in five semesters. As I entered my twenties, I wanted to come to NY to continue studies but was doing terribly in competitions and was having troubles with performance nerves. I mistakenly felt that there was no future for me in music. I’d always been very bright in school, so rather than fight through the problems I was having with performance anxiety, I completed pre-med at USC in three semesters while continuing piano studies at USC with Brooks Smith. I then went back to Iowa for medical school where I earned an MD and then completed my internship, fellowship, and residency in eye surgery at the LA County/USC Doheny Eye Institute…and all the while continued to practice the piano and play at a very high level.

Now it gets interesting. I had joined a private eye surgery practice in LA and had practiced just long enough to become a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons, when I made the acquaintance of composer Leonard Rosenman. The winner of multiple Oscars and Emmys, Rosenman had studied with Sessions and Schoenberg and first came to prominence when he scored Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden in 1955. James Dean had been his friend, piano student,and some-time roommate. Rosenman and his new wife Judie had come to look at a house in Hollywood that I was selling and noticed my Steinway B with such works as Gaspard de la Nuit and the Brahms Paganini Variations on the music desk. Leonard said to the broker, “I thought you said this guy was a doctor. He seems to be a real musician; I’d like to meet him.”

We met and became instant friends. He thought I was a very talented musician and that I was crazy for not pursuing a life in music. With his encouragement I started playing in public again, got rave notices, and entered a few competitions, which I won. Significantly, I won a competition to become an Artistic Ambassador for the USIS, touring Europe and states of the former Soviet Union while introducing them to the Ives Concord Sonata, the Carter Sonata and other American masterpieces.

Encouraged, I quit medical practice, moved back to NYC, and enrolled in the Master’s program at MSM. My Carnegie Hall debut and a burgeoning career all soon followed.

“Be brave, and just do it.
You’ll find your way.”

What inspired you to attend the Manhattan School of Music?

Scott: Although I had looked at Peabody and Juilliard, it was the invitation by Byron Janis to study with him at MSM that clinched the decision for me. Like his teacher Horowitz, he was known to only take one or two students a year. He had also studied with the Lhévinnes, as had Brooks Smith, so I knew I would be in great hands, and he was indeed a wonderful teacher. MSM also offered a very accepting and rather low-key environment where I was able to pursue all that interested me and work things out in my own way.

Was there someone during your time at MSM who stood out as a mentor? Please share an experience or some advice you received during your time at MSM that contributed to where you are today.

Scott: I was fortunate to have so many great teachers at MSM. There was of course Byron Janis, who encouraged me to concern myself less with technical issues and to really concentrate on the poetry in the music. He also, quite bravely, encouraged me to add conducting to my artistic arsenal. I studied conducting with David Gilbert at school (and Vincent LaSelva privately) and also at the Aspen Music Festival and School during summers. Ludmila Ulehla (BM ’47, MM ’48) was an incredibly empathic and supportive composition teacher who provided just the encouragement I needed. Adele Addison secured for me a vocal chamber fellowship for my summers in Aspen and really taught me so much about singers, musicianship, and career possibilities. And finally, David Noon, hilarious and erudite, taught me not only music history but provided me with some great early conducting opportunities with the MSM Percussion Ensemble and others.

During those years, though, my most important mentor was the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. We were sometimes two piano partners and great chums. He encouraged me to look outside of the usual classical canon to the great American Songbook and to neglected “cross-over” composers. He taught me how to cook, how to improvise for singers, and most importantly how to orchestrate. He sat with me (as did Ludmila) and worked page by page as I orchestrated in pencil the un-orchestrated and ‘lost’ Duke Piano Concerto. I luckily made my Carnegie Hall debut (as pianist and orchestrator) with the Concerto in the 1999 Gershwin Centennial Concerts with Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra.

As a tribute to R&B as a jazz/cabaret performer and writer, I recently orchestrated, conducted, and recorded an entire album, I Watch You Sleep, with Claire Martin and the Royal Philharmonic, which was released just this March on Stunt records. It’s available everywhere and is eliciting rave responses. My friend Claire, who was RRB’s last singing partner, is amazing.

What advice do you have for our recently graduated Class of 2023 regarding a life in music?

Scott: I would advise young artists to absolutely stick to one’s dreams, but not to be too rigid in the details. There are so many amazing pathways out there, and you need to be open to them artistically. One learns both through success and failure—especially failure—but you have to put it out there.

Be brave, and just do it. You’ll find your way.

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