Former student pianist Dong-Yi has returned to the Santa Monica school in a new capacity: director of its Elizabeth Mandell Music Institute
By Michael Aushenker
In 1989, composer Herbert Zipper, a music theory teacher at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, witnessed a young Dong-Yi win first place at the Pearl River National Piano Competition in China. Zipper convinced the student of Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music to come to America and attend Crossroads, which the young pianist did, graduating in 1993.
But Dong-Yi’s affiliation with his alma mater did not end there.
In October, Crossroads announced Dong-Yi as the new director of its prestigious Elizabeth Mandell Music Institute (EMMI), replacing long-time director Mary Ann Cummins.
“At Crossroads, we combine music education and academics, emphasizing human development. We want well-rounded human beings,” Dong-Yi said.
The musician has assumed an important mantle, charting the future of a prestigious program that children compete globally to enter.
The Argonaut met with Dong-Yi and Henry Shin, the EMMI chamber orchestra’s assistant conductor, in late April as they observed EMMI Chamber Orchestra Artistic Director and conductor Alexander Treger lead 10 students through the Pizzicato Polka by Strauss — a rehearsal for a performance this Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater.
Treger and Shin also lead Crossroads Community Youth Orchestra (CCYO), EMMI’s after-school orchestra, which invites musicians ages 9-15 outside Crossroads to participate.
This year, Treger, an energetic figure who served as Los Angeles Philharmonic concert master for 36 years, marks his 21st year teaching at Crossroads.
“It’s a great joy and it keeps me younger,” Treger said. “Overall, we have a good time. We teach them how to play in an orchestra, how to behave in an orchestra. You’re young. You come here to learn how to play with professionals.”
Crossroads is a private, progressive school serving grades kindergarten through 12. Founded in 1978, EMMI began after namesake and board trustee Elizabeth Mandell. EMMI music majors experience improvisational training, monthly solo recitals and master classes featuring guest speakers from the national and international stage.
Dong-Yi fondly remembers mentor Zipper, a colorful, impassioned figure and Holocaust survivor who had escaped Dauchau only to be kidnapped by Japanese soldiers and interred in another concentration camp. The subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Never Give Up,” Zipper spent 20 years conducting LAUSD children’s concerts until his death in 1997.
Since Dong-Yi filled his former teacher’s position, Cummins has returned to teaching music theory. A part of Crossroads since its inception in 1971, Cummins, as Dong-Yi describes her, is “the backbone and fire” of EMMI.
Since graduating from Crossroads, Dong-Yi has played with members of the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony and L.A. Philharmonic and performed as a soloist with the Pacific Symphony and the Beijing Symphony.
Supplementing his field experience, the pianist does not come to his administrative role as EMMI’s artistic director without precedent. Dong-Yi, who began giving piano instruction while attending Yale University, founded Opus119 Conservatory of Music in Irvine and divides his week between Santa Monica and Orange County. His former students have played Carnegie Hall.
Both Dong-Yi and Crossroads place a premium on music education, as Crossroads students volunteer their time to tutor pupils at neighboring St. Anne’s Catholic School.
Jun Ha Kim, Sebastian Carrasco and Ernie Carbagia, who were rehearsing with Treger for Sunday’s performance, are among 30 Crossroads teens teaching music on a weekly basis to 120 St. Anne’s children.
“It’s really nice, I do remember being their age,” said Carrasco, 17, a 12th-grader who has played violin since age 4. “That role reversal now is really good and helps you understand where your teachers are coming from.”
Kim, 16, half-jokes how tutoring helps him “focus on the parts I haven’t been practicing.”
In fact, Kim and other matriculating students arrive at Crossroads committed to classical music. Tenth-grader Kim has been playing violin for nine years.
Dong-Yi plans to expand EMMI to include students at Crossroads’ adjacent elementary school.
“What I’m doing here is re-envisioning what the school’s next decade will be,” he said.
The Elizabeth Mandell Music Institute performs at 6 p.m. Sunday at LACMA’s Bing Theatre, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (323) 857-6000 or visit lacma.org.