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Foggy Bottom/ West End Community Profiles: Marta Casals Istomin It's All About Listening


Marta Casals Istomin lives in a lovely condominium in Foggy Bottom with a wonderful view of the

Kennedy Center. It is fitting that she is able to look out onto the nation’s cultural monument every day,

given her extraordinary life in music, and in arts and cultural administration.

During a visit one recent afternoon, Casals Istomin shared stories of her childhood, her musical

education, and the life her musical ability made possible. It is a story of unexpected twists and turns – of

taking advantage of opportunities, of paying attention, and, above all, of listening.

Casals Istomin was born Marta Angelica Montañez Martinez in Humacao, Puerto Rico, in November

1936 to parents who founded and ran a business school. In 1941, at the urging of her paternal

grandmother, the family moved to a farm in Bayamon. While Casals Istomin and her parents and two

younger brothers lived at the farm full time, her extended family was a constant presence. It was her

father’s eldest brother – her uncle Rafael – who was her first musical guide.

Rafael Montañez was a newspaperman and accomplished music critic. He began teaching young Marta

and her cousins to sing. The children all enjoyed these lessons, but it became clear that Casals Istomin

had real talent. “I was the best among my cousins,” she said, a sparkle of pride and amusement in her

eyes.

Uncle Rafael continued Casals Istomin’s lessons, teaching her the solfeggio as well as the violin. She was

often asked to play for family gatherings; she speaks of the times she and one of her cousins would hide

so they wouldn’t be asked to play. But she loved the music.

Casals Istomin and her family moved to San Juan in 1944. Her Uncle Rafael had the idea that Marta

should become the first professional female cellist in Puerto Rico, so he found her a cello. However, the

full-sized cello was too big for the eight year old. Enter her maternal uncle – Uncle Antonio.

Uncle Antonio Martinez ran a successful Latin orchestra in Los Angeles at the time. At the request of

Uncle Rafael, Uncle Antonio found a child-sized cello and sent it to Casals Istomin. She practiced and

became good enough to study at the renowned Figueroa School in San Juan, a prestigious music

organization founded by a musically prominent Puerto Rico family.

While studying music formally, Casals Istomin also enjoyed growing up in a musical family. Her mother

played piano, and her father played the guitar, the mandolin, and the flute. They would gather family

and friends on Saturday evenings to play. Neighbors would bring chairs and sit outside on the lawn to

listen to these impromptu concerts. Often they were treated to performances by world-class musicians

who had stopped in San Juan on their way to play in symphony orchestras in South America; airplanes

were unable to make the trip from North America to South America without stopping to refuel.

It was a bassoon player who noticed Casals Istomin’s talent during one of those musical gatherings. He

brought her to the attention of the Mannes School of Music in New York, who offered 13-year-old Marta

a scholarship. She moved to Manhattan to attend Mannes, along with the Marymount School – “so the

nuns could keep an eye on me,” Casals Istomin said.

In 1951, when she was still studying at Mannes, Uncle Rafael took young Marta to the Prades Music

Festival in France. At the Festival, she ran into her former cello professor from Mannes, Lev Rozanov,

who had studied with world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals who had organized the Festival. Because of

that connection, she was invited to attend rehearsals with Rozanov and Uncle Rafael. It was while

waiting in line outside of the rehearsal hall that she first met Pablo Casals. And thanks to Rozanov, a few

days later, she played for Casals for the first time.

Upon her graduation from Mannes and Marymount, Casals Istomin moved to Prades, France, to study

with Casals. It was the beginning of an extraordinary education.

Casals was an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republican government, and after its defeat in the

Spanish Civil War in 1936, he vowed never to return to Spain until democracy was restored. He settled in

Prades, on the Spanish frontier; between 1939 and 1942 he made occasional appearances as a cellist in

the unoccupied zone of southern France and in Switzerland, but he spent most of his time teaching. He

was so strongly opposed to the Franco regime in Spain that he refused to appear in countries that

recognized the totalitarian Spanish government. Casals made a notable exception when he took part in a

chamber music concert at the White House on November 13, 1961, at the invitation of President John F.

Kennedy.

In the early 1950s, Casals was still recognized as the world’s premier living cellist, and many musicians,

scholars, and world leaders visited him in Prades. On most days, at 5:00 pm, he welcomed visitors to an

“open house.” Each of these “open houses” included ten to 12 notable people, in addition to the

students who studied with the Maestro. These salons gave Marta and her contemporaries an education

far beyond that available in any institution of higher learning. As she said, “I learned about music. I

learned about politics. I learned about culture. All I had to do was listen – really listen.”

While continuing to study cello with the Maestro, Casals Istomin also became his assistant. She helped

Casals with arrangements for the Pablo Casals Festival, and helped to organize other performances. She

handled much of his correspondence. And she and Pablo Casals grew close.

In 1956, Uncle Rafael persuaded the Governor to invite Casals to Puerto Rico. Casals, whose mother

came from Puerto Rico, had never visited the island, and was eager to meet extended family. Once

there, he allowed himself to be talked into spending the winter, and later to holding a musical festival.

And in 1957, despite concerns expressed by her family and others, Pablo Casals married a not-quite-21-

year-old Marta.

After their marriage, Marta’s career shifted from music performance to running the Pablo Casals

Festival, to managing the Symphony Orchestra of Puerto Rico (which Casals helped establish), and to

caring for and managing the affairs of the Maestro himself.

“I was always learning,” Casals Istomin said. “I took every opportunity I had to listen to experts, to world

leaders, to musicians.” She was beginning to develop the broad and strong networks which would figure

in her career for decades to come.

But, she noted, such networking took a different form than it does today – a much more personal form.

“This was not Linked In,” she noted drily.

Marta and Pablo Casals remained married until 1973, when he died of a heart ailment at the age of 96.

After the Maestro’s death, his widow was named co-chair, president, and musical director of the Pablo

Casals Festival organization, her first major arts administration post. She expanded the activities of the

Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra to include a children’s program.

In 1975, Marta married concert pianist Eugene Istomin, who had himself been a longtime friend and

confidante of Pablo Casals. In 1978, she left the Casals Festival organization and moved with Istomin to

New York.

In 1979, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, then a member of the Board of the John F. Kennedy Center

for the Performing Arts, invited Casals Istomin to lunch. He had talked with then-Kennedy Center

president Roger Stevens, who had learned of her work with the Casals Festival. Fortas broached the idea

of Casals Istomin’s becoming the Kennedy Center’s artistic director.

Reluctant at first, Casals Istomin hesitated. She was concerned about whether she could meet the

responsibilities of the position that went beyond music. But her husband reminded her, “the principles

are the same, and you’re a quick learner.” So Casals Istomin accepted Roger Stevens’ offer and became

Artistic Director of the Kennedy Center in January of 1980.

From that time until October of 1990, Casals Istomin broadened Kennedy Center programming and

educational efforts. She arranged for performances from the broadest possible range of artists and

genres from all over the world.

Casals Istomin focused on showcasing artists from the United States, including many who were not as

nationally known at the time, such as the Dance Theater of Harlem. She launched a series of summer

festivals, including those focused on jazz, chamber music, and Mozart. She developed a Meet The

Composer series designed to introduce audiences to contemporary classical music and the artists who

created and performed it. She inaugurated the Terrace Theater – a gift from Japan in honor of the

American Bicentennial – with a comprehensive series for jazz, piano, strings, voice, chamber orchestra,

and family programs. Casals Istomin also brought the first complete Wagner Ring cycle production to

Washington.

“I wanted the Kennedy Center offerings to represent the best the world and the country had to offer,”

she said. “But because the Kennedy Center is our national cultural center, I wanted the whole country –

artistically speaking – to be present at the Kennedy Center.”

Casals Istomin left the Kennedy Center in 1990, and in 1992, became president of the Manhattan School

of Music. During her tenure, she expanded MSM, physically and artistically, establishing programs for

talented inner-city youth, bringing world-renowned musicians to the campus, and developing a

cooperative relationship with Columbia University.

Since her formal retirement in 2005, Casals Istomin has remained active as a board member and advisor

to a wide range of arts organizations. In November 2015, she received the Library of Congress Living

Legend Award. The Award honors “artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers,

sports figures, activists, and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s

diverse cultural, scientific, and social heritage.”

Casals Istomin listens to a wide range of music, although she retains the discipline and focus of a

classical musician. She believes strongly in music as a balm for a troubled world. While she welcomes

technology in some respects, she expresses concern about digital music. “Equalizers,” she notes, “filter

out the musical emotion. That is sad.”

She attributes her success to “knowing how to listen – listen, ask for more, and try to understand.”

Casals Istomin plans to remain in Foggy Bottom, sharing her condominium with the view of the Kennedy

Center with her beloved Shiba Inu, Chutney, for the foreseeable future. “Foggy Bottom is beautiful, it’s

near the water, and central to everything,” she said. “And the lovely people make it a real

neighborhood.”

#communityprofiles #Blog

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