Rebekah Heller, a dynamic bassoon virtuoso and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) since 2008, has just been named that trailblazing institution’s newest co-Artistic Director. Heller replaces clarinetist Joshua Rubin, a founding member of ICE, who has served as an artistic director for the ensemble since 2014, and joins percussionist Ross Karre, who became an artistic director in 2016 when flutist and ICE founder Claire Chase stepped down from her position. As Chase did, Rubin now returns to the ranks of core membership.
“I have been honored to represent ICE’s creative leadership as the first member of our performing collective to become a member of our staff,” Rubin said in a press statement. “Rebekah is the embodiment of the co-Artistic Director role as Claire Chase and I envisioned it. But more importantly, she is forging the future of ICE. She is one the most experienced and longest-serving members of our organization as both an artist and administrator, and her voice is always present in our creative vision. I’m excited to continue my work with Rebekah and Ross by returning to my roots as a band member and as an advocate for ICE’s work.”
This passing of the torch reflects an innovative leadership model whereby ICE will rotate its artistic directors on a staggered basis every few years, a move meant to promote opportunity and variety.
“It’s thrilling to see our little-engine-that-could come full circle as a true artist collective, one that does not emulate existing organizational structures but instead continually invents progressive, authentic, and adaptive new ones,” Chase said via e-mail. “It’s also a source of great pride for me as the founder, and now as a devoted board member, that ICE continues to embrace rotating leadership as a tenet of our collectivity.”
Before joining ICE, Heller was employed as principal bassoonist for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. She moved to New York City in 2008 to join ICE. She joined the organization’s staff as Director of Events in 2010, and in 2013 was appointed Director of Individual Giving. In additional to performing in countless concerts, workshops, and other events with ICE, Heller has recorded two superb recital discs for the ensemble’s Tundra imprint: 100 Names (2013) and Metafagote (2017). Speaking by telephone, she talked to National Sawdust Log about her expectations for her new position.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: In nuts and bolts terms, what does the gig entail for you?
REBEKAH HELLER: It’s really interesting, because I think that together, Ross and I have the skill set that Claire and Josh originally had. I have a lot more of a development background and I’m really good at people, and Ross had been running production of this organization long before he was an artistic director. So we have a set of skills that work really well together. I will still be doing a lot of development work, but we have hired someone to do more day-to-day development work. My day-to-day has taken on a lot more presenter relationships, long-term planning meetings with Mostly Mozart and our partners across the city, planning big collaborations with our OpenICE program, and doing more things that are less focused specifically on fund-raising, more focused on long-term planning goals and presenter relationships.
Is it too early to ask whether you also have new ventures in mind, going forward?
It’s never too early to ask that. [laughs] One of the things that I really want to focus on is diversity within our group and within our collaborators, and, going forward, really examining ourselves and the way that we’ve been working, and pushing ourselves to expand our roster and our collaborative artists.
For all that you gain in taking this role, what is the potential impact on your day-to-day activities as a performer?
It’s a really big commitment, spiritually. It’s a huge time commitment, and it is also a very big life commitment. I think that although my worlds within ICE have always been very meshed, in terms of my artistic staff role as a fundraiser, this will be even more so. And I think it will take a lot of discipline to stay practicing and working in that way as much. But sometimes for me, when I’m totally in it, it’s easier for me to build that time in. You can focus better on the things you need to do. So for me, it’s about being all-in, and being super-focused on ICE 100 percent of the time.
But presumably it does mean shelving certain things? I assume we won’t be seeing another solo album from you very soon?
I wouldn’t say that! [laughs] I’m still really involved in my work. And I want to help other people in ICE strengthen their solo careers, because at the end of the day, we are a collection of virtuosic soloists and chamber artists, and I think it’s really important that we support one another on that platform. And in that way, I feel supported by ICE to continue to create exciting solo work.
In the press and on social media recently, we’ve seen something of a backlash against the notion that classical musicians nowadays have to develop and emphasize entrepreneurial skills. I presume that you’d disagree, but have you sensed a turning tide of opinion?
I think a really big point that’s being missed is that musicians are some of the smartest people on the planet. To say that we only should, or should have to, or should want to do only this one really specific thing – which is to sit in a chair somewhere and play music that someone else tells us to play, that someone we don’t know has written for us, or for someone who was sitting in that same chair 200 years before us – I think that that takes away from the incredibly smart and deep accomplishments of the musicians in the world who are making the careers that they want to make.
I built the career that I needed to build. I needed to do all these things. I was so bored, languishing in a symphony orchestra. I was so happy to have the job that I had in Jacksonville, but it didn’t feed me, and so I left. I chose to struggle and wait tables and do all the things that people do to make a living in New York. For me, there was no other option. I think it’s just important to recognize that I was able to do this because so many musicians had done it before me, but I also didn’t wait for anyone to tell me that it was okay.
This is the one thing that I get asked more than anything else from young bassoonists, or any young musicians just starting out, who heard that there are two career paths: there’s an orchestra job and there’s a teaching job, and everything outside of that is “the other” – it’s scary, and it’s the consolation prize, what you do when you can’t get one of these other two jobs. In reality, so many young people are seeking something different and richer and more creative, and are so against the sort of hyper-specialization that we were sort of forced into in the early 20th-century model. Young people today are just breaking out of that and saying, “I’m really smart and creative, and I’m good at X, Y, Z, and double-A—I have all of these skills that I want to explore.” And I think that to say as musicians we only should do one thing, or should only have to do one thing, is really limiting to people who have a lot of skills, and want to create a really full, rich, deep, and interesting life in the work that they choose to do.