Though he trained and performed originally as a vocalist, Edward Yim has played an instrumental role in helping to direct the fortunes of some of classical music’s most prominent, prestigious institutions. He held positions in artistic planning at the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and New York City Opera; during his tenure at IMG Artists, he managed the careers of composer-conductors such as John Adams and Thomas Adès. Most recently, Yim was the vice president for artistic planning at the New York Philharmonic, where he worked closely with former music director Alan Gilbert.
It was during that time, Yim relates, that he discovered his true calling – a realization that hit home one evening in 2016. Just after the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere of Unearth, Release, a viola concerto by Julia Adolphe, Yim found himself seated in Shun Lee at a table with Adolphe and her fellow composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen, and Tan Dun. “I looked around at these composers,” Yim said, “and I thought, This is my happy place. This is where I feel most useful, and where I feel most at home.”
He shared that memory during a recent interview at the midtown offices of the American Composers Orchestra, of which he was named president in January, succceeding Michael Geller, whose 20-year tenure saw some of the boldest ventures and most adventurous programs in the institution’s 40-year history. Now, as the ACO prepares to launch its 2017-18 season with a Nov. 7 gala concert featuring music by Bernstein, Gershwin, Ellington, and ACO co-founder Francis Thorne, as well as premieres by Elizabeth Ogonek and National Sawdust founder Paola Prestini, Yim offers a glimpse of things to come — including the launch of a novel initiative, the Commissioning Club, which in its first year will support the creation of a new piano concerto by pianist-composer Ethan Iverson.
THE LOG: How do you envision the ACO mission? Is it germane to ask you about your perceptions of the organization before you joined it?
EDWARD YIM: I always admired the work that they did. Every time I would see their programs at Zankel Hall, I would say, oh, I should try to get to that. And to a certain extent, in the marketplace of New York culture it’s hard to get to everything that looks interesting, even if you’re interested in going. So one of the things that I keep saying to the staff here, and that we’re going to keep talking about, is, okay, we’ve been doing great work. How do we make it “don’t miss” work? How do we “eventify” it?
In today’s environment in the arts, especially in New York, everyone talks about the days when you subscribed to Thursday nights at the Philharmonic, and that’s what you did. Or you subscribed to Saturday matinees at the Metropolitan Opera, and that’s what you did. And that was a regular part of your life. It’s messier now. There certainly are subscriber bases that those institutions have, that are important to them to maintain. But more and more, as we know, people pick and choose. So how do we become that thing that’s not only available, but that people choose?
Does the ACO have a subscriber base, or is that not part of the model?
We don’t have a subscription model. We play two concerts at Carnegie [Hall] – one of our concerts is on a Zankel subscription series, so they have a base. But this coming year we’re doing this gala at the Rose Theater celebrating the past and future of ACO, and we’re collaborating with Prototype to do [Gregory Spears’s opera] Fellow Travelers. We have these disparate products that we’re participating in and collaborating in. So my conception – and I think Paola has done a fantastic job of this with National Sawdust – is that we’re not building a subscriber base; we’re building a community. We’re building a community of creators, performers, and listeners who are interested in the same thing. Turning to the specific issue of the Commissioning Club, that is exactly what that platform is meant to do: to help strengthen and build the community that we want to build around ACO, of supporters and event attenders.
I find the Commissioning Club model very appealing and empowering. It reminds me of Vanguard, a Houston Grand Opera membership program I supported many years ago as a recent university graduate. As members, we knew that our money was earmarked specifically and exclusively for newly commissioned works, and we were provided with access to works in progress – which gave you a real sense of familiarity and ownership.
That’s what we have to offer at ACO that’s different, I think. Because we primarily play living composers, the ability to observe and participate in the creative process is something that we have to use to distinguish ourselves and to build an audience.
You raise an important point: The ACO performs mostly living composers, but not exclusively. It wasn’t all that long ago that you could go to Stern Auditorium and see a full-blown symphonic ACO playing full-blown symphonic music, and some of it might even have been older pieces. Ideally, what should the balance be between premieres and commissions versus past repertoire?
I’m not quite sure this answers that question head-on, but let me say this: In my major-orchestra career, I felt that I was programming Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler so that we could do John Adams and Julia Wolfe and Kaija Saariaho. The continuum has just shifted for me here at ACO – I believe, for the artistic health of the orchestra and in terms of building an audience and in terms of our mission, that we program Bernstein, Copland, and Gershwin so that we can perform Julia Adolphe, Matt Aucoin, and Courtney Bryan.
I actually wondered if it was the other way around: that you program Vijay Iyer and Ethan Iverson so that you can also retain Roger Sessions and Walter Piston.
That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about it upside-down like that.
It does seem by this point that the real attractions are the new composers that you’re commissioning and that you have this very living relationship with, whether they’re in the house or on a video screen. It almost seems that that’s the incentive for people to come in and be reminded that Vincent Persichetti was also an important composer.
Right. I like that. And I also think that maybe it’s not linear; it’s kind of a mutually reinforcing circle. It’s interesting to note that composers like Paola and Vijay and Missy [Mazzoli] are youngish, but they have developed their own brands now. They have broken out, so to speak – so they occupy a third category, I would say. But we’re really committed to discovering the composers who people have never heard of, and they need to be anchored on a program with someone either from the legacy of American music or their immediate mentors and role models, who people know. Certainly we could program a wonderful musical program of composers that no one has ever heard of, but I’m not sure we’d do a service to them, because the audience would be small – that’s just a fact. There’s nothing wrong with small, but if we want to get more people to hear people that they’ve never heard before, I do believe that the balance between programming emerging composers with established composers – whether they’re dead or currently with us – is a balance that needs to be struck.
Not so many years ago, there was a lot of robust competition in what the ACO was doing – you had Alarm Will Sound and Signal and the Brooklyn Philharmonic and a lot of other bands doing similar things in the same market. The field seems somewhat less crowded now, but how would you assess the competition for the territory that you occupy?
What we can do that will add value to the mix… I’m not saying that we won’t play chamber-orchestra repertoire, because we do, and will continue to do, because that’s what Zankel fits, and we serve a purpose in Carnegie’s overall programming that they support, and we’re grateful for that. But where we can add value in the ecosystem of New York and new music in this country, that ICE, Alarm Will Sound, Signal, and the Knights don’t necessarily do, is to be a symphony orchestra.
Over my first six months at ACO, I’ve asked a lot of young composers and established composers who are new stars: Do you care about writing for orchestra? Is that something you’ve totally written off, or you’re not interested? And I would say most people have said they would love to write for orchestra. Sonically and impactfully, there’s just nothing like it. Of course, the intimacy of chamber music and ensemble music has its own virtues, but composers today still want both. And so what Sawdust is doing, what ICE is doing – we all need to fit together and support each other, and support our composers by offering them a variety of platforms to write for. More and more, I hope ACO will resume its mantle as the symphonic platform for American composers.
What is the significance of “Dreamscapes,” the name you’ve given the new season?
It was the name that was given to the final concert of our season at Carnegie. It’s a lovely, evocative word. And for all of the pieces that are on that program, which I’m very excited about – Ethan’s piano concerto [Concerto to Scale] and Clarice Assad’s violin piece [Dreamscapes]; Hitomi Oba is a product of our Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute – there’s not an anchor piece on that program necessarily of someone who has a brand in this realm. So one of the things about asking Ethan to be the first Commissioning Club subject is to build a following for him in our world. He obviously has a following in his world, but we wanted to build support for him, specifically.
In terms of naming the season “Dreamscapes,” it was really to help draw attention to that final concert of the season. It’s a bit of a marketing umbrella, but one that I think is significant. And when we do our season print piece, we’ve asked various composers who are represented in our season to talk about dreams: How do you dream about music? Have you ever had a dream about someone else’s music? How would you define the American dream in 2017? And we’re very proud of the fact that ACO has a remarkably ethnically and gender-diverse group of composers that we work with.
That’s been true throughout the orchestra’s history, but it became markedly evident during the tenure of your predecessor, Michael Geller, to the benefit of all involved.
It was one of the great achievements of Michael’s tenure. So the idea of using “Dreamscapes” as an opportunity to talk about what composers dream about, and also as artists how they define the American dream, I think is really powerful.
Let’s get more specific about the Commissioning Club. What is the engagement between artists and members? What does someone who joins the club get?
There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is we want the Commissioning Club to get to know the composer as an artist: who they are, where they came from, what music they like, what inspires them; to hear some music that they’ve written before. An orientation, if you will. Second session, midway through the composition process: Here’s where I am with the piece. I may go this way; I may go that way. Here’s an interesting compositional problem that I’m grappling with right now in writing this piece. Very much in process, very much inside the mind of the composer as he or she is writing the piece.
I love that idea, because it takes the act of composition out of the ephemeral and makes it very tangible and concrete.
It’s akin, I would say, to being able to see a workshop of an opera, something in process – with, I hope, a lot of interactivity between the club members and the composer: “Why did you make that choice, and not that choice? What are you meaning to say here?” That kind of back and forth. And then of course the end point is the premiere, where this club feels ownership of the piece, they have intimate knowledge of the piece, they can be advocates for getting people to the concert to hear the piece that they helped commission, and then they get a signed score from the composer at the end, with their name listed on the front page as one of the commissioners. It’s their piece of immortality.
How did the Prototype collaboration come about, and why?
I think it’s very important as a small arts organization to collaborate with other organizations, because we can get a lot more done together than we can separately. I feel very, very admiring and close to what Beth [Morrison] and Kim [Whitener] have done with Prototype, what Beth has done with her production company, what Paola has done with National Sawdust, what Judd [Greenstein] and Sarah [Kirkland Snider] and their colleagues have done at New Amsterdam Records. At this point, Bang on a Can is almost kind of…
Old guard, and important! I believe in supporting each other, and I believe we can do things together that we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves. In the case of Fellow Travelers, I literally was in the shower, before I even contemplated leaving the New York Philharmonic and coming to ACO, and I heard the NPR piece on Fellow Travelers and about the premiere, and I thought, that sounds really interesting. That’s something that I would feel like it’s a must-see. And then a good friend of mine, who teaches at Cincinnati Conservatory, mentioned it in passing: ohhh, I saw this new opera called Fellow Travelers and it was really moving, really beautiful.
So the first thing I did once it was confirmed I was coming to ACO was I spoke to Derek and I said, I’m kind of interested in this piece Fellow Travelers, it’s by Greg Spears… and he said, “Oh, Greg came through our reading sessions… that would be great.” So I called Evans Mirageas at Cincinnati [Opera] and asked, is the New York premiere for Fellow Travelers spoken for? And he said, yes, Beth Morrison and Kim Whitener and Prototype are doing it. So I called Beth and said, Do you have an orchestra for Fellow Travelers? She said, why? And I said, I would like to co-present with you, and we worked it out. It spoke to a piece that we wanted to do, supporting a composer that we have some history with, and collaborating with a colleague and with an endeavor that I think it’s important for ACO to be in the same sandbox with.
Finally, to what extent are you looking down the line past the coming season? What are your aspirations and goals?
We’re in the middle of a strategic planning process with our board, but Derek and I have tossed around a lot of ideas about what we want to do in the long term. Derek and I have enough programming for 12 seasons! But it’s important to get the board on the same page, and to make sure we’re on the same page with the board. It’s not just them coming to us; it’s meeting someplace, so that we’re all taking this in the right direction.
We plan to finish the strategic plan in the fall. That’ll give Derek and me the framework with which we can work for the next few years. And then we will be able to commit to and fill a multi-year artistic plan, and an organizational budget that will support that plan. But, expect a lot of the themes that we have talked about so far: collaboration, diversity, interdisciplinary work, emerging composers, for sure – and the range of American composers, from legacy to current stars to emerging composers, playing a mix in what we do – and being an orchestra.
The American Composers Orchestra opens its 2017-18 season, “Dreamscapes,” on Nov. 7 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall. For ticket information, and for details of the entire season, including the Commissioning Club, see americancomposers.org.