Early Adventures of a Renaissance Minded Kid
Bouncing back and forth between the sciences and the arts and reveling in discovered or imagined points of connection has fascinated Renaissance Center founder, John Cimino, since he was 12. He lived in an Italian American neighborhood and playing stickball and eating his mother’s meatballs were definitely top of the list. But a close second was reading scientific biographies beginning with Michael Pupin’s autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor, and onward to Einstein’s collaboration with Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics. A world was opening to young John and it was full speed ahead.
"I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
"In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. The important thing is not to stop questioning."
Enter Chopin: A Prelude to Mystery
John's 'discovery' of classical music was life-changing for him and just days later, he was experimenting with how to combine his scientific adventures and his musical ones. The Chopin seemed a perfect match for reading Einstein, and Mozart, his next fascination, seemed just right for Newton, Kepler and Galileo. And so it went, learning the periodic table and the activity list of metals to the sounds of Bach, Brahms and Beethoven.
In the fall of that same year, a boy in the grade ahead of John offered him a gift of sorts. It was an LP record the boy needed to get rid of because playing it at home was driving his mother crazy and she had said, “Either it goes, or you go!” John looked at the album cover and it said, ALEXANDER BRAILOWSKI PLAYS CHOPIN’S 24 PRELUDES. John had no idea what a “Prelude” was but it sounded mysterious and apparently it was forbidden and John accepted it without question.
When he got home he hid it and waited for a time when no one else was in the house. When the coast was clear, he slipped it out of its jacket, placed it on the turntable and ever so carefully lifted the needle into the first groove. The sounds that emerged were a mind-boggling revelation, riveting him in place. A world of mystery was opening before him. Interior spaces both intimate and vast were suddenly alive with emotions, some familiar, most barely guest at: profound, exuberant, sad, soul-shaking, sublime. He was hooked. Fortunately for John, his mother was a bit more tolerant than his friend Michael’s, and though hearing it over and over was driving her crazy too, she merely asked her high-bouncing son to play the music more ‘softly’ which John agreed to do, at least when she was at home.
The Arts and Science Equally
In college, John studied biology and physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and, though he loved the sciences, found himself pulled equally towards the arts and humanities. Thankfully, the institute had a few special classes for fellows like John and he was given the opportunity to study Blake, Eliot and Yeats with a brilliant humanities professor throughout his four years there.
In his spare time, John taught himself piano on an ancient 9-foot rosewood grand he rescued from the institute's trash. He also founded a tutoring program for area high schools and before long was doing deep dives into learning theory and experimental approaches to teaching. By the time he was a senior, his passion for teaching earned him job offers from more than a dozen public and private schools and an opportunity to try out his own ideas about the learning process in classrooms at every level. He threw himself into the design of courses in astronomy, biology, geology and environmental science, and within a year, added new courses in creative writing, selected topics in science, an anthropology/future studies course he called "Quo Vadis, Homo Sapiens?", and a signature creation he dubbed “Thinking and Perceiving”, in effect a precursor to cognitive and physiological psychology for teens curious about their own minds, brains, thoughts and feelings, a topic John would incorporate into his life's work for decades to come.
"Man s unique not because he does science and not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expression of his mind."
“The symbol and the metaphor are as necessary to science as to poetry.”
Science and Human Values
"It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it."
Opera, the MET and Juilliard
During his summers, John tried something entirely new – opera singing. Although never having studied or performed before, John gained acceptance into an apprentice program with the Lake George Opera Company. His natural singing technique, based on what he had heard on vintage recordings of Caruso and other greats, combined with his quick musical memory, earned him performance opportunities where he was very soon ‘discovered’ by a scout from the Metropolitan Opera who offered him a place with the MET's Opera Studio. Astonished and certainly appreciative, John explained that he was a scientist and teacher and just trying out his voice for the sheer joy of it. But the scout persisted and explained to John that he had been blessed with a biological gift for which he could take no credit but for which he owed it to himself and his family to see what he could do with it. It was then he made John an offer he could not refuse.
and Leontyne Price
Over the next year, John agreed to travel to the MET any time he could take time away from his teaching. Coaching with the MET's top musical staff, introductions to the famous singers and back stage passes pass to the MET performances were his for the asking. John was captivated, and if that weren’t enough, was soon invited to sing for a mysterious personage whom he was told might be willing to help him. That turned out to be the amazing Miss Alice Tully, one of Lincoln Center’s leading benefactors, who after hearing him sing, awarded John funds to begin his studies and help him transition to New York. The following fall, he gained acceptance to the Manhattan School of Music to study one-on-one with its president, the great Maestro George Schick, and thereafter at the Juilliard School to study with the renowned voice teacher, Daniel Ferro, who became John’s lifelong friend and principal musical mentor. Juilliard's American Opera Center was now John's new home where he studied languages, opera scores, art songs, diction and acting, performed leading roles on Juilliard’s Lincoln Center stage and was transformed into an eminently qualified young opera professional.
Thinking in All Directions: Of Metalogues, Synergetics and Double Description
In the span of five years, John won more than two dozen international singing competitions, including the International Verdi Competition in Verdi's home town of Busseto, and Pavarotti's own International Singing Competition hosted by the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
In between opera gigs and singing competitions, John immersed himself in the writings of his intellectual heroes, Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, Jacob Bronowski and Arthur Koestler. He wrote music to the poetry of Stephen Crane and Daniel Berrigan, and composed an opera based on anthropologist and literary naturalist Loren Eiseley’s celebrated essay, THE STAR THROWER. By the time he was 30, John had also invented what would become his company's signature performance innovation: the “Concert of Ideas” destined to take him and his Creative Leaps International colleagues onto the mainstages of global summits, conferences and special projects on six continents.
Pavarotti and Cimino
Cimino and Pavarotti
THE STAR THROWER
Mentors, Heroes and Friends
The shaping of a Renaissance minded kid or any kid fascinated by the wonders to be found 'in a grain of sand' or the starry heaven above is rarely a matter of wild happenstance. Gifts need to be nurtured, inclinations encouraged, mentors discovered along the way. In my own case, I was blessed with parents who instilled in me the belief I could do anything I set my mind to. I was never an 'easy' child, my energies and moods, especially as a teenager, were "a trial to everyone". But I was loved unconditionally and given every opportunity to find my way and develop my interests no matter the path, no matter how far afield they might take me. That freedom and support were my bedrock, my powerhouse, my platform for lift-off and remain so to this day.
But I had other champions as well, extraordinary personages of great accomplishment who offered their mentorship, friendship and personal support over decades or somehow at just the right moments. Some of their pictures are here, but the list is far longer and each one is precious to me. Would that I could thank them even half as well as they deserve for their their kindness, wisdom and precious time spent with me.
Pictured first is Vartan Gregorian, my incredible mentor of 35 years. We met when he was president of the New York Public Library where I sat at his knee for conversations about interdisciplinary thinking and the unity of knowledge. Some three decades into that conversation and now head of the Carnegie Corporation, he called me to say that the time had come for me to establish my Renaissance Center and that he would help me.
I had read about Mary Catherine Bateson as the daughter of the famous Gregory Bateson whose work I had studied my entire life. But her own work, beginning with her books, 'Composing a Life' and "Peripheral Visions', were as full of wonders and insights as anything her father had written. I reached out to her, as life would have it, just two years before she passed away. But the gift of her friendship and unfailing wisdom were like a lightning strike changing me forever.
The British-American mathematician and physicist, Freeman Dyson, was another of my heroes whose books I had read since my college days, each one a journey of insight and imagination akin to their titles, 'Disturbing the Universe', 'Infinite in All Directions', 'The Scientist As Rebel'. Imagine my astonishment when I heard from a friend to whom I had recommended one of Dyson's books, that Dyson wanted to hear from me and was inviting me to Princeton to meet with him at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Our day together was nothing short of miraculous, possibly my best day ever, and sealed a friendship that lasted till his passing at age 97.
Maxine Greene was a legend, a philosopher and educator known for her courage and tenacity of mind as well as her unrivaled brilliance in her field. She taught at Columbia University's Teachers College and it was there that I met her for the first time. She spoke about the social implications of imagination and empathy and the formation of the self from glimmers of the "not yet" that we might work to bring into being. Our friendship of 15 years was a lesson in life and genius like none other.
And finally for this list, is Frances Hesselbein, a protégé of Peter Drucker, as brilliant, wise and unabashedly loving a person as ever walked the earth. "To lead is to serve. To serve is to live." Her life of more than a century has embodied this message every day. Her gift has always been the distinctive quality of her mind and generosity of spirit. To say that we once danced and sang together is for me to remember a friend who enriches my life still and immeasurably. Brava, Frances!