Music to your eyes

(Photo by Chris Cooper)

(Photo by Chris Cooper)

Nothing makes a university administrator happier than a graduate who goes off to make good in the world and finds his or her way back again years later with a heart full of gratitude and a checkbook full of evidence of material success. To revert to philanthropy-speak, such brick-and-mortar “naming opportunities” are the stuff that a major gifts officer’s dreams are made on.

Most of the time, when this sort of thing happens, the major donor endows some facility related to the field of study that made such worldly success possible. But oddly enough, László Z. Bitó – the alumnus whose largesse is responsible for the Bard College Conservatory of Music’s smashing new building that’s about to have its ribbon-cutting on Sunday – was never a music student. True, he had compelling reason to be thankful to Bard, which offered him a full scholarship when he fled Hungary’s collapsed revolution in 1956 and sought political asylum in the US. But his studies were in the life sciences, and after graduating from Bard with a pre-med degree in 1960, he went on to earn a PhD in medical cell biology and biophysics at Columbia University.

Bitó then joined Columbia’s research faculty, where his work led to the development of a new approach to the reduction of eye pressure that saved the sight of millions of glaucoma sufferers. Upon retirement from Columbia as professor of ocular physiology, Bitó returned to his native Hungary and started a second career as a novelist, journalist and democracy activist. Some of his 14 nonscientific books – novels, essays and three anthologies of selections from his more than 100 newspaper and magazine articles – have appeared in translations in half a dozen countries.

So now some of the money that Bitó made in developing the glaucoma drug Xalatan – a gift of $9.2 million, in point of fact – has found its way back to his undergraduate alma mater. And apparently Bard didn’t need another science building nearly so badly as it needed a space for its Conservatory of Music – which has quintupled in size since its founding in 2005 – worthy to keep company with the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts.

Appropriately enough, the 16,000-square-foot László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building was designed by the architectural firm of Deborah Berke Partners to be easy on the eyes as well as the ears. Windows were strategically placed to allow natural light to fill all of the studio and rehearsal spaces and create views of the surrounding woods and the Hudson River.

The core of the new building is a “jewelbox” recital hall with flexible seating that can be rearranged to accommodate an audience of anywhere from 25 to 150 listeners: ideal for chamber music. Each room in the Bitó Building is designed to have exceptional acoustics, and all can serve as either teaching, rehearsal or performance space. Two of the studios are specifically geared toward the needs of Bard’s cutting-edge percussion ensembles.

The gala opening of the László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building will commence at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 14 with an Open House, with chamber music performances in some of the new studio spaces. A celebration will follow in the performance hall at 4 p.m., with welcoming remarks by Robert Martin, director of the Conservatory of Music.

Students of the Conservatory will perform a “Fanfare” composed for the occasion by Andrés Martinez de Velasco (Class of ’15). Acclaimed poet Robert Kelly, Asher B. Edelman professor of literature at Bard, will recite his “Poem for the Dedication.” Remarks by Fanya Wyrick-Flax (Class of ’13) will lead into a performance of selections from Bach’s Magnificat by the Bard College Chamber Singers, conducted by choral director James Bagwell.

Bitó himself will then have a chance to speak, followed by closing remarks from Bard College president Leon Botstein. There will be a reception in the performance hall lobby afterwards. This event is free and open to the public; call (845) 758-6822 or 758-7866 for more information.

László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building gala opening, Sunday, April 14, 3 p.m., free, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-6822/7866, www.bard.edu/conservatory/bitobuilding.

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