Acceptance into the prestigious Juilliard music school apparently came easily to Andrew von Oeyen. Staying there just might not be so easy.
Within a week of his arrival in New York, he suffered a collapsed lung and required hospitalization. Then there was that little incident while he was leading a Malibu Times reporter on an informal tour of the school, and security was called to escort the trespassers out of a locked theater lobby. If talent and personality have anything to do with it, however, one day Malibu’s favorite young pianist will number among Juilliard’s favorite graduates.
During lunch at Tavern on the Green, a block from the school, the modest, nearly 19-year-old unwillingly discusses his illness but willingly discusses music, although he mentions neither his winning the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra’s Bronislaw Kaper Award, nor that he has already debuted with that orchestra, nor his vast concert history. Instead, he recounts the help his teachers proffered and the scholarships the Malibu community has awarded him — particularly the Malibu Woman’s Club and Malibu Rotary Club.
With 400 other piano hopefuls (1,000 had been screened), the Crossroads School graduate auditioned in New York for acceptance into Juilliard. “You’re given 10 minutes to prove what you’ve got to the piano faculty,” he says. They required four pieces from contrasting periods: baroque, classical, romantic and 20th century. Von Oeyen played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in d from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 2 and Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1. The faculty sat in a cold, dark room where they had been cloistered all day. “They didn’t smile,” he recalls.
He found his name and only one other listed on the callback board that afternoon. He suggests that he did well because his Los Angeles piano teacher, Daniel Pollack (USC’s reknowned piano professor), arranged for him to practice the night before at Steinway Hall. Also, he says, he felt relaxed knowing he made the callback and knowing, “If I didn’t get in Juilliard, I would also have a happy life going somewhere else.” He returned home and checked his mail every day. He was one of 20 pianists accepted.
Juilliard was his first choice, primarily so he could continue his studies with Juilliard piano professor Herbert Stessin. Von Oeyen studied with Stessin at the 1997 and 1998 Aspen Music Festival School. He says his teacher speaks to him in metaphors, which von Oeyen understands immediately.
On the night before his flight to school, he packed his suitcases until 3 a.m. His family came with him, stopping off in the Midwest for a family reunion. “Little did I know they’d be back in a couple of days to see me in the hospital,” he says.
He arrived in New York in time for Juilliard’s orientation. One week later, he experienced stabbing pains in his side and shortness of breath. He waited a day before seeing the school nurse. After X-rays were taken, he left campus for lunch. When he returned, the doctor was waiting for him with the news that an ambulance was on its way for him. “I was completely shocked,” von Oeyen says. “He reassured me that it was a common procedure to reinflate the lung, and that I would be out in a couple of days. I didn’t want to get on a gurney. It was embarrassing to be wheeled through the building. It was a really frightening experience on the gurney.” He missed the first week-and-a-half of school but nonetheless became one of the most well-known members of the freshman class. “Even people who didn’t know me here were very supportive,” he says. Students in the supposedly competitive school brought flowers and balloons to the hospital.
The lung reinflated, but the doctors found an air leak in it. They waited one week to see if the leak would stop. It did not. “I had the best thoracic surgeon in New York City,” he says of his stay at Beth Israel Hospital, which taught him to appreciate the medical profession.
From his room on the 26th floor of Juilliard’s Meredith Wilson Residence Hall, von Oeyen has a view over the upper west side of Manhattan and even up the Hudson River. He says he is there only to sleep and do homework. He shares a suite with music, drama and dance students. “The diversity is nice,” he says.
His classes include Music Theory 3 (thanks to Crossroads, he says, he passed over two semesters of theory), Music Literature, Music History, Ear Training, Piano Topics, Humanities, German, the Juilliard Colloquium (where he interacts with dance and drama students) and, of course, his piano lesson. “They give me time to practice,” he assures. “It is a perfect school.” Nonetheless, he hopes to supplement his education with a class in conducting (currently taught at the graduate level) and an additional class at Columbia University.
Meanwhile, he says, he must step out of the school for a while every day. “Otherwise,” he says, “the music starts to reflect the coldness and claustrophobia of a practice room.” So far, he has stepped out accompanied by the many visitors from Malibu who pass through New York, seeing theater or playing tourist in Times Square.
After lunch, in response to a bit of begging, von Oeyen gives a tour of the school. He is a one-man chamber of commerce. Without prompting, he recalls the interviewer’s answers to his lunch-time questions, so the tour passes a dance class in progress and through the theater department.
In the music department, he greets absolutely everyone, and many ask after his health. He seems to know not only every student’s name, but their prior teachers and the individual pieces each is working on. He is not shy about opening practice room doors to introduce one and all.
Soon we come upon his piano teacher’s room. Stessin is almost as open and chatty as von Oeyen, but his next student seems anxious to begin her lesson, so Stessin limits his on-the-record comments to, “He’s a good kid,” spoken with a definite twinkle in his eyes. In these days of political scrutiny, proper behavior seems valued above talent.
My tour guide suggests we see the theater where the school orchestra performs. We find our way into the basement, where a door leads us into the empty theater lobby. The door locks behind us. We pound on every possible exit. A man preparing the bar behind glass doors will not let us out and says he is calling security. I ponder how I can explain to his parents, the Rotary Club and the Malibu Woman’s Club how I got him tossed out of school after all he’d been through.
A security guard finally sets us free. We bid each other a conspiratorial goodbye. Von Oeyen heads for a practice room. He might be playing a nice transcription of “Fidelio.”
Andrew von Oeyen will appear with the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra Dec. 13 at 4 p.m. at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.