September 09, 2022
Maria Asteriadou and Kurt Nikkanen
Maria Asteriadou and Kurt Nikkanen are professors in Kutztown University's Department of Music
The magnificent influence of classical music can transform an enormous coliseum into an intimate gathering, or a drab auditorium into a grand concert hall. A contemporary audience can time travel and discover the wonder of Mozart, the mystery of Beethoven, and the harmony of Schubert, without ever having to leave their seat.
Kutztown university professors and internationally renowned musical duo, Dr. Maria Asteriadou and Kurt Nikkanen, have made it their mission to nurture promising students and promote the university’s musical offerings within the community, recruiting a new generation of young virtuosos.
A Head Start
Asteriadou’s mother, a professional pianist, was her first teacher. She dreamt that her children would inherit her love of music, but Asteriadou’s two older brothers were utterly disinterested, and her hope faltered. Then Maria, her youngest, began piano lessons at five, and erected the foundation of an illustrious, globe-spanning career, which includes a Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School and a Doctor of Musical Arts from The Manhattan School of Music.
Although Asteriadou inherited her mother’s instrumental skill and enthusiasm, they occasionally disagreed about the merits of different composers.
“My idol - Beethoven - probably came from my mother’s influence,” Asteriadou recalled. “His music expresses so much of his own personal suffering and how he felt about life. It’s easy to relate to. Another composer who really drew my attention - against my mother’s wishes - was Béla Bartók. My mother wondered ‘why would you spend all this time on him?’, but I was drawn to the folk element in his compositions and the energy.”
Growing up in West Hartford Conn., Nikkanen credits a blend of environment and his parents’ encouragement as the catalyst for his musical career. West Hartford’s proximity to concert halls in Boston and New York, and his mother’s determination to get him into concerts as early as they would allow, meant that Nikkanen had a front row seat watching the greatest musicians of the time. At home, he listened to classical music on public radio, and was drawn to the sound of the violin. After receiving violin lessons for his third birthday, ‘the rest was history.’ As an undergraduate at The Juilliard School, Nikkanen hadn’t considered becoming a teacher, but his mentor Dorothy DeLay encouraged him.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know anything yet, so how can I possibly teach?’” Nikkanen revealed. “It didn’t matter. I started helping out with some of the younger students and realized it [teaching] forces you to think about how you play. It makes you a better performer.”
In 2002, the stars aligned for Asteriadou and Nikkanen, and the duo met at a music festival in Kent, Conn., where they presented Franz Schubert’s technically and musically complex ‘Fantasy in C major’ for violin and piano. It hit 100 degrees that day, and the chapel where they performed was scorching.
“It was difficult but fantastic,” Asteriadou reminisced. “We bonded over it. There was an immediate standing ovation and we realized, ‘ok, we’re meant to be together and to play together.’”
Since that fateful encounter in Connecticut, Nikkanen and Asteriadou have performed at venues all over the world, both intimate and majestic, from the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens to the Salzburger Festspielhaus in Austria. In every setting, the same thing remains crucial: connecting with the audience.
“We’ve performed in all of the major halls,” Nikkanen said. “In smaller venues you can build a rapport with the audience. At Kutztown we can see the audience’s enjoyment and their thirst for more, it’s so important to us.”
Fate intervened once more: when Asteriadou was living in Brooklyn in the 1980’s, her neighbor was Kermit Oswald, who received his BFA from Kutztown University, later becoming president of the Keith Haring Foundation and vice president of Sorrelli Jewelry. The memory of that personal connection sparked her interest when she learned a position was available at Kutztown University in the Department of Music. Asteriadou applied - and landed the job - in 2006, and Nikkanen joined her on the faculty a few years later. Kutztown became the globe- trotting duo’s home base, where they’ve focused on establishing the Kutztown Summer Music Festival as an esteemed annual event, creating musical opportunities for children under the umbrella of the KU Arts Society, and recruiting talented international undergraduates to the department.
Harmony at Home
“Kutztown is a place where there is room for everyone,” Asteriadou proclaimed. “We treat all our students the same- musicians, performers, educators, commercial - everyone is at the top of our list. Living so close to New York and Philadelphia, we have connections that benefit the music department, whether it’s bringing our students to concerts in the big cities or bringing in guest artists and offering master classes.”
As professors, the two know that not every one of their students will choose the same path, and they aim to guide students according to their needs and career aspirations. The approach is drastically different from that which Asteriadou observed as a doctoral student:
“Constance Keene - she was very firm - she would say it as it is,” Asteriadou recalled. “I was her assistant and heard her say ‘Oh dear, you should just quit,’ to a student who wanted to pursue music but didn’t have the tools. My colleagues and I embrace, mentor, and guide our students during their four years, and we guide them according to their own needs. Music is something you can approach from different angles.”
Part of advocating for students in the music program includes lobbying for additional resources and implementing initiatives that augment the prestige of the department. Within the past decade, KU became one of only 13 universities in Pa. to be granted the All-Steinway designation; the Kutztown University Chamber Players performed at Carnegie Hall; and the President’s International Piano and Strings Scholarship was established to fully fund five full-tuition scholarships, awarded to four string players and one pianist.
“Maria and Kurt are the sole reason I’m at KU majoring in music performance,” revealed scholarship recipient Nicolás Gómez Amin ’22. “I was in the process of considering schools when I met them four years ago, at a chamber music festival in my home country of Chile. They encouraged me to apply to KU, and I realized it was such a great opportunity, I had to take it. My experience here has been fantastic in every sense, and Kurt and Maria are amazing professors - caring and supportive - encouraging of every idea that I’ve had. KU was the right choice for me.”
Asteriadou and Nikkanen’s passion for music, enthusiasm for teaching, and commitment to arts programming for the community, is prominent at the annual Kutztown University Summer Chamber Music Festival, now in its 12th year.
At the weeklong festival, participants have the opportunity to attend master classes and workshops, as well as receive private lessons and daily chamber music coaching. Students are accepted into either the junior (ages 12-18) or senior division (18+) and applications come in from talented musicians all over the world. Nightly concerts are open to the public, and all musicians accepted to the program can enter the Concerto Competition and vie for first prize: a sponsored trip to Greece, to perform as a soloist with the Symphony Orchestra of the University of Macedonia, in Thessaloniki, Greece.
“People love it!” Asteriadou exclaimed. “It always surprises me: how can we do this in just a week? It’s always nerve-wracking in the beginning, but with support from the administration, friends, faculty, we’re established as a major festival. It’s extremely rigorous, but we do get a lot of interest, which is great.”
While the chamber music festival is designed for middle and high schoolers to participate in, Asteriadou plans to develop programming for K-12 students, under the umbrella of the Kutztown University Arts Society.
“We hope to establish a venue where we can showcase what we do at KU, our love of the arts, and give it to our community,” Asteriadou said. “It’s important to connect with our community and demonstrate to young people what we do, specifically music. We were introduced to music early on, in our family environment: not everyone has that chance, and we can provide it.”
She envisions a collaboration between undergraduates in the music department and local elementary, middle and high school students, working together in an after-school program, where hands-on music education will help young children learn how to play instruments. Future plans include a community concerts series where children can play along with KU music majors and experience the energy of live performance firsthand.
“That’s one thing the better youth orchestras do: have professional section leaders come in and play along with the students,” Nikkanen mentioned. “It’s a crucial interaction to encourage musicians to become teachers, and for children participate in music education. Our students learn how to become ambassadors and bring music to the community, as well as inspire a new generation of artists.”
Pursuing a degree in music isn’t for the faint of heart - it requires hard work, determination, and patience.
“It’s a beautiful path, but it’s intense and unending,” Amin confided. “One has to be 100% committed to achieve what you want.”
President’s scholarship recipient Jean Pierre Agustin Kiklikian Herrera ’23 concurs.
“Music is different than any other career,” he stated. “If you’re an engineer and the building falls, you know you did something wrong. With music, it’s subjective, and there’s no limit for improvement. You have to give it 100% and be the best you can. It’s very rewarding. Kurt and Maria have been extremely supportive, and everything you would ask from a professor and mentor - priceless.”
Although becoming a performer can be a long and arduous journey, one thing is certain: the guidance, support, and resources available at KU make it the right choice for aspiring musicians to begin their trek.
by Esther Shanahan