Brimming with hubris, Boston’s NEC chief announces his return to Britain

Brimming with hubris, Boston’s NEC chief announces his return to Britain


norman lebrecht

October 03, 2014

Tony Woodcock, former manager of the Liverpool and Bournemouth orchestras, has endured a rocky US career. He left the Minnesota Orchestra in a financial quagmire and has been dogged by turbulence through his tenure at the New England Conservatory.

From reading his resignation statement, however, you’d think it was all a bed of roses. Seldom have we seen a departure letter so full of self-praise. There ought to be a royal band of guards out to welcome him on his homecoming. Here’s  the letter, circulated last night among trustees and faculty. As a measure of the prevalent climate of fear at NEC, all those who sent us the letter have begged to remain anonymous. Woodcock calls it ‘a golden period in the history of the NEC’.



Dear NEC Trustees

I hope you have all had an opportunity to read my recent Board Update containing some exciting news about the achievements of our amazing students.   This is becoming routine for us at NEC, but their successes never cease to amaze me.  Our triumphs at the Indianapolis Violin Competition with 2nd, 4th, and 5th places going to NEC students, at the Kreisler Competition in Vienna, and at the Casals Competition in Spain where cellist Taeguk Mun won first place, all speak to the vitality and artistic energy of this great institution, and like you, I couldn’t be more proud.

Many people have referred to the last several years as a golden period in the history of NEC.  Gunther Schuller recently stated that NEC has never been better. As I reflect on these years, I’m moved to remind you of some of the most significant ideas and developments we have advanced, including:

  –  the Orchestral program under the inspired direction of Hugh Wolff, now considered to be the finest program in the country,
  –  the Sistema Fellows program which has launched 50 outstanding leaders into the field with stunning results,
  –  the reinvestment in our Opera program, which has repositioned NEC as a destination for outstanding young singers,
  –  the contribution that Entrepreneurial Musicianship is now making to the thinking and lives of our students as they begin to manage their careers,
  –  the celebration of our Jazz and CI 40th anniversaries as cutting edge programs nationally,
  –  the creative spirit that abounds throughout NEC as a result of our very real focus on chamber music,

  –  and our thriving Preparatory School which now attracts more students than ever.

I am pleased with the substantive improvements we have made to our financial wellbeing; and I am grateful for the support that all of you have provided for this astonishing organization.

Leading NEC is a privilege.  Indeed, it is a position I have always described as the best job in the world. My motivation as President of NEC comes from my real love of the students, my deep respect for our faculty, and my passion for education, for music, for the quality of the student experience and the very real need for scholarship support.  I am, after all, a musician, and I see NEC first through this prism.  I would like to think that this has contributed to the joyfulness that spills out from classrooms and concerts throughout NEC on a daily basis.

What has become very clear to me in recent times, however, is that NEC is at a moment in its history when it needs a different type of leader as its President.  The pressure to balance budgets in the face of scholarship demand and changes in philanthropic support , especially in the years that followed the world’s economic financial collapse, tests every one of us in ways, frankly, I never imagined when I took the reins at NEC.   So much so, in fact, that I have come to the conclusion that I have for many years, subjugated my passion for classical music and performing arts to meet the demands of the rest of the job.

As I have shared with Board Chair Ken Burnes, I feel strongly that it is time for me to return to my roots, if you will, and find an outlet where my creative, teaching and musical talents are better tapped.  I am therefore announcing my intention to step down as NEC president at the end of the academic year in June 2015.  I have communicated this to Ken and I am pleased that he supports me in what has been a very difficult decision.

My intention is to ensure that this transition is as seamless for the Conservatory as it can be.  I love NEC very much and I will work through the period of this transition to support you in every way I can as you enter into a search process for my successor. I will do this with the same devotion and commitment I have always demonstrated at NEC.


Tony Woodcock


  • Edward Elgar says:

    The Golden Age of NEC? What a laugh. More like the dark ages. The once great Conservatory has become a place of fear, paranoia, and turmoil. It’s my understanding from an internal source that Woodcock was fired. What took them so long? Here’s hoping NEC can dig itself out of this hole, and rebound to be the school it once was.

    • hmmmmmmm says:

      In his efforts to “balance budgets,” Tony Woodcock forgot completely about the NEC student body. Every effort was made to make NEC sparkle superficially in the eyes of donors, while the needs of the students and faculty were left to rot. Woodcock failed to realize that a great institution cannot truly shine if it fails to invest in its students.

  • Maybe now there is hope for a better NEC. Take heart, Ben Zander!

  • Doug says:

    When will North Americans finally learn that a British accent does not necessarily equate a high level of competence? A higher competency of bull sh itting, perhaps, but the rest of us can see right through it.

  • 2nd violinist says:

    So which British job is he after…?

  • NEC Students says:

    I don’t know what NEC you’re talking about, but as a student I have never experienced any of the “fear, paranoia or turmoil” you mentioned. NEC has always been a welcoming community, and like president woodcock said in his letter, a lot of programs are constantly improving. We have a world class orchestral program, with incredible teachers (ie Kim Kaskashian, the Weilersteins, Laurence Lesser, etc.) the opera program, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, has recently reached new heights of excellence, attracting better singers than ever before. I could go on about this school, but the fact of the matter is, we are all extremely proud of what’s going on here. Please don’t use this strange resignation letter to bash an institution that has never been better.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      I agree that NEC is one of the leading conservatories in the US. It’s faculty, especially in strings, is most admirable; its graduates are consistently at or near the top of the profession. A name to remember is NEC President Daniel Steiner (1999-2006) who, although not a musician, had the vision to begin to create a faculty for the 21st century. His NYTimes obituary in June 2006 tells the whole story:

      I can not and will not comment on the current situation except to wish Mr. Woodcock well and to hope that NEC remains strong for many years to come.

  • NEC faculty says:

    Is this a joke, Mr. Elgar? “The place it once was”? You mean the place that many strong applicants as recently as the 90’s used as a safety school? Not everyone, myself included, agrees with all of the changes that took place, needless to say. But few will disagree that NEC is now ten times the institution it was 20 years ago, in terms of faculty, students, and its place on the map of American conservatories. And to those who are after friendly atmosphere, and are short-sighted enough to consider this to be a litmus test for an institution’s success, there is a pretty good coffee shop across the way, where many of us have pretty friendly conversations…on a pretty regular basis.

  • NEC constituent says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, it’s quite a shame that you insist on putting a negative spin on most everything, especially the topics and people that you aren’t favorable of. I generally refuse to read your column, but had to speak up after what you’ve posted about this most recent bit of news.

    As a reminder to your readers, you are not at NEC. You don’t know how the organization is operating. And furthermore, you don’t know the motivations behind the most recent decision and Thursday’s announcement. Frankly, I doubt any of us will ever truly understand the latter. But why should we? Instead, we each have a job to do – namely, providing the best educational experience possible to the students attending NEC. President Woodcock has set the vision, and the rest of us will continue to carry this forward as new leadership arrives and refines the vision to suit the school’s needs.

    Regardless of President Woodcock’s decision to leave, he has provided tremendous leadership to the organization in numerous ways. Why would one not call this the golden years of NEC? Have you been around the school (ever? especially within the last few years?) to experience the thriving energy of NEC’s students? Have you heard any of the concerts from Jordan Hall’s stage, or any of our other performance halls? What more would you want added to the list of accomplishments that President Woodcock cites, deeming this (in your mind) an acceptable time in NEC’s history? If you could consider this logically, look back to a few years ago – the accomplishments that President Woodcock lists match the stated goals of the most recent strategic plan.

    Whomever your sources are that say it’s a climate of fear, I urge your readers to know there’s another (perhaps larger?) cohort of NEC constituents that are not fearful. We may have questions and be working through challenges, but what organization isn’t? Often times, this is what motivates us to push forward and continue to grow for the better. It will be sad to see President Woodcock depart, yet this will also be an opportunity for whomever the successor might be.