“Helmut Lachenmann was the first one.” Melissa Smey says, smiling as she recalls her initial programming foray for the popular, influential Composer Portraits series at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. “That was a fun one,” she says of the 2010 event, a highlight of her first season as the trendsetting venue’s executive director—a role she assumed in 2009 after the departure of George Steel, her predecessor, now curator of music at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Fun might not be the first word that comes to mind when contemplating Lachenmann’s severe oeuvre, but it’s exactly the right term to convey the ebullience with which Smey approaches a position in which she has flourished for a decade.
The present Miller Theatre season marks the 20th anniversary of Composer Portraits—a series that Smey, who joined the institution in 2001, had a hand in from very close to the beginning. Ranging from John Adams to John Zorn and all points in between, the series has showcased music by some of the world’s most prominent composers, while also turning a spotlight on up-and-coming creators of note, played by a strong coterie of first-rate soloists and ensembles—many of whom have become the institution’s extended family.
In a recent interview conducted in her office, adjacent to the theater, Smey shared her view of what makes the series work, how she has fine-tuned the formula over the years, and what she has learned in the process. The conversation started with an obvious question…
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: So, why Lachenmann?
MELISSA SMEY: His music is really great! I’m a huge fan of his music. The idea of that portrait had been in orbit for a little while, so I was aware of it—Ensemble Signal had been pitching George different projects, and it just didn’t work out. So when it came back around that Lachenmann was going to be coming to Eastman to be in residence, and it would be really easy for him to come and be in New York and do …zwei Gefühle…, I was like: yes, yes, yes. And that was the JACK Quartet‘s debut, that portrait.
We had these two subscribers, who are now board members, who are faculty in the business school, and they knew Helmut; they had been in some residency in Berlin with him. They called me up and said, we’d like to host a party for the musicians after the concert at our apartment. So I got to walk over and ride up in an elevator with Helmut Lachenmann. I was young and enthusiastic then [laughs], and I was just like, “You are my idol. You are like a rock star.” And he’s like, “What is this? What do you mean, rock star?” [laughs]
Prior to that, how involved were you in George’s programs? What hand did you have already in the making of Composer Portraits, before they became your sole responsibility?
In terms of producing those events, developing an audience for those events, and building a marketing, outreach, and audience engagement strategy—that was me. The idea of having a subscription campaign for this, and the idea that you could package new music in a way that would be appealing to a subscription audience, which at the time seemed like kind of an outlandish idea, and now it makes total sense—I’m deeply involved in that.
In terms of the artistic choices, those were his, and he had a really strong viewpoint on what he was trying to accomplish. But in terms of producing them – we need this many chairs, and we’ve got to rent these instruments, and so-and-so needs a visa – I was producing them, and I was building an audience with him for those concerts. I was a fan.
I had a choice, obviously, when I became the director. No one said, “Melissa, you must maintain this series.” But of course, I wanted to. Composer Portraits are near and dear to my heart. I love that series, and I wanted to continue it; I had invested a lot in it, and it contributes so much to the scene.
George’s conception of what a Composer Portrait is meant to do – providing an evening-length cross-section of a single composer’s work, demonstrating not only style and personality, but also change over time – was widely circulated during his tenure. What appealed to you about the template?
The magic of the format is that it’s an opportunity to immerse yourself for an evening into a composers’ music. That immersion is what makes this series so special, and what has helped to connect it to audiences over the past 20 years. And it’s widely emulated now, which is terrific. It took me a little while to hone what I now consider the core of my curatorial practice. It took me a little while to find my footing there, and to understand what was important to me about it. And one of the things that became really central was the relationships that I had developed.
Relationships with composers? Performers?
Yes, and with audiences. Working to facilitate connections between and among those was the magic about it. That’s why one of the things we’re focusing on this season is this idea that it is a community of people coming together, and the overlap between communities: the New York community of music lovers writ large, and then this New York new music community that encompasses musicians and composers and ensembles and audiences and critics and journalists and people who are feeding that scene. That was really central to me.
But then, I felt the agency to free myself from the sense that it needed to be a retrospective. That kind of art-world model, where it’s meant to be a career retrospective: that’s nice, that is wonderful, and when that happens and it makes sense, that’s terrific. But I felt that it was limiting me in terms of, particularly, an opportunity to work with younger composers. It works great when you’re talking about Helmut Lachenmann and he’s celebrating his 75th birthday, or his 85th birthday. Totally makes sense.
But there are different lenses through which to look at a composer’s creative output, right? It could be, like, thinking about Julia Wolfe, and she’s got four string quartets and two string-orchestra pieces. That’d be a really fun lens through which to view the vast array of her work. And then for a younger composer, where maybe they don’t have 20 years of work yet, it’s a snapshot, a more immediate view.
That was very freeing, when I realized that it could have whatever lens we would like to bring to it, and it didn’t have to be this vast expanse of repertoire.
Right, when you’re working with a younger composer, a Marcos Balter or someone like that, there’s not necessary a depth spanning backward over decades. It’s more a longitudinal cross-section: Here’s a variety of things that Marcos Balter does well.
What’s been so meaningful about going back to relationships, then, is while you might not have a 20-year trajectory, Marcos and International Contemporary Ensemble, the ensemble that played his music here, had known each other for almost that long a period of time. So you have a depth of a connection between the instrumentalists who are performing the music and the composer. And that, also, I find quite magical—kind of like if you had a tailor who would make you a bespoke custom suit, and every detail would be tailored to you. Do you have short arms? Do you have particularly long legs? And it would fit you in a way that a suit of clothes off the rack wouldn’t. That connection between composer and ensemble, or composer and musicians, is another element that I think is really important in where the series has evolved to.
So then, the most fundamental question is: how do you choose? You’ve got the whole world of composers to figure out, and you’ve now had 10 years of learning, in a lot of different senses, what worked, and what not so much so. How do you face the blank page of a season? Are you pitched, or do you have a hit list, or is it some combination of those?
All of those. There are an endless, endless, endless roster of things coming into the inbox—of cold pitches from composers themselves, from publishers, from ensembles….
Publishers, of course. I didn’t stop to consider that.
They’re advocating for these composers they really believe in.
So, no shortage of pitches. I’m sure you’ve got a hit list that’s more than a decade long, yourself.
Yes. And so I work collaboratively with the ensembles, because there needs to be the idea of making a connection between composers that are on the ensembles’ wish lists and composers that are on my wish list. And then, does it make sense? Is the composer on board with that? I don’t like any of it to be a cold call or first date. This series is really important, and it needs to work at a very high level on a variety of factors, so there is no element of first date in any component.
You’re looking for confirmed relationships, in a sense.
Right. We have very, very few ensembles now that are making a debut in the Composer Portrait series, for example, because the relationship is so important, and we want to be on the same page in terms of goals and what we’re hoping to achieve. So it’s a lot of returning ensembles. In other, developmental series, like the Pop-Up Concerts, we’re working with new ensembles that we haven’t worked with before. That was one of the reasons why I developed that series. Also, there are amazing star ensembles, and you can’t do a Composer Portrait with every star ensemble, every season. And there are some smaller ensembles… it’s hard to do, say, a whole Composer Portrait with the JACK Quartet, because how many total string quartet evenings are there?
So you’re looking for confirmed relationships among composers and performers, and you’re also sustaining your own relationships with ensembles that you’ve got history with.
And, I like the idea of helping to support the New York new-music scene. Certainly we work with groups that are from elsewhere; Third Coast Percussion, from Chicago, is a regular collaborator, and we have a strong national and international presence for the series. But I care about supporting the New York new-music scene, and there are really world-class star performers here in New York.
You know, there was this idea – you’d have to go back a decade or more, maybe 15 years ago – there was this sense that if you wanted new music, the top five groups that people would name were European groups. They weren’t United States groups, and they weren’t New York groups—and it wasn’t because the musicians weren’t world-class. I saw that as an opportunity to be supporting these excellent ensembles by making these concerts happen, giving them a platform for greater visibility. Alarm Will Sound did their very first concert right here. So Percussion and ICE have gone on to become incredibly important, major United States ensembles now. It’s really gratifying to have played a role in helping to support that.
Being responsible for the care and feeding of a major venue, how often do you get to go out and do any scouting? Do you get to go out and do any exploring, seek out the young composer prospects yourself?
It’s been a little while. I haven’t traveled internationally in a little while, which is a bummer, because that is important. I used to be doing that every other year. So that is hard, and especially as my role here at Columbia has expanded, international travel is a little challenging. But I go to stuff locally a couple of times a month.
And then the secret way – which doesn’t have to be a secret, I’m happy to say it – is I serve on a lot of panels. Like, Riccordi in Berlin were accepting submissions from a wide variety of international composers, with the goal that they would choose three to be part of a recording lab. That involved listening to hundreds of hours of submissions from composers all over the globe. That was really eye opening, to see the trends, and it was a ton of really useful information: their CV, who they studied with, what they’ve written, and where they’re working.
I was also on a panel, for several years, for the American Academy in Berlin, which was similarly useful as an opportunity to listen to tons and tons and tons and tons of music. And then I’ve been a review panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, and that’s another great way to be able to look at what’s happening nationally.
I don’t want to put you in a position of trashing anything, but I am curious about whether there were things that were tried here, over the course of 20 years, that maybe just didn’t work?
That’s a good question. I think that part of honing an artistic practice – or, for me, honing a curatorial practice – is about learning from the experience of having done it. And so, having been doing it now for a decade, the things that are core to my programming philosophy have been honed through that. It’s some of the things we’ve already talked about: the rapport and relationship between the ensemble and the composer really matter. When you’re engaging in a composer, you’re not just taking on notes on paper, but an entire performance practice and philosophy. You want people who are attuned to that wavelength, so that they can make the best possible case for the music.
Especially when an audience may not be familiar with some particular composer, you need advocates on the stage.
That’s right. So we try to bake that into the process, where they have four to five days here dedicated for rehearsals on our stage, with the composer. If it’s an international composer, we’re bringing them here to be with them. It’s why my focus has been on living composers—and that wasn’t always the case in the past. You could make an argument for any of that, but for me, I want living composers, because I want them to be here and I want them to be working with the musicians. And to the extent that then that composer’s work becomes part of what they are doing, then they are able to disseminate that to future audiences. Some of them are teaching it to future students. They’re able to pass it forward. So that firsthand experience, I think, is really, really important.
And when you can put a composer on the stage ask them a few questions….
Yes! Yes, yes, totally.
… you’re literally humanizing the entire process for an audience—especially lay audiences of the type who wonder “what is modern music?” And “what am I hearing?”
That’s exactly right, and so something else that I changed: the composer talks used to happen before the concert, and I made it an integral part of the concert itself. It’s a little shorter than it used to be; it’s about 10 to 15 minutes. But it happens right after intermission, so it means that the audience has had an opportunity to hear some of the music already. So we’re not talking about it out of context or in theory; we’re talking about it, really.
I work to try to make it be a thoughtful pairing of the composer and who’s going to interview them. So the very best ones, you know… I’m thinking about when [Yarn/Wire pianist] Ning Yu and Wang Lu had their talk together, and talked about the experience of being new moms, there was something really personal and really meaningful about what they were bringing to that conversation. It wasn’t an academic discussion or a theoretical discussion; it was a really heartfelt and personal discussion. People connect to people, and they connect to things that are real, and I think that it’s important for people to feel like classical music is for them. So that’s what I’m striving for with those conversations.
Starting last season, you decided to adopt that conversational tone in the program notes you publish and circulate.
Yes, exactly. I loved the talks, and we get a lot of feedback from audiences that it’s one of their favorite parts of the event—I mean, you can feel the energy in the room. The people are really into it, and they’re there. They’re laughing, they find the humor in it. So I wanted notes that would do that. I wanted notes that would feel like you were just talking about it in plain English, and that would feel welcoming, and would kind of be whatever you could distill down about the essence of those discussions on stage. [Full disclosure: Lara Pellegrinelli, the journalist, critic, and scholar Miller Theatre hired to write program notes, is married to the writer of this interview.]
I care so passionately about audience development, and about making everyone that comes here feel welcome and that they belong here, and working to try to get as many as people as possible in the door to experience these amazing performances of incredible music. So every part of the experience needs to feel welcoming and help make it feel like, yes, you belong here. It doesn’t mean it’s not okay if you don’t like it; you’re allowed to not like it. So I felt like the notes were a really important way for us to be able to speak to the audience, in addition to what was happening onstage.
It would be like asking you to pick your favorite children to press you for your favorite Composer Portrait concerts over the years… but I do wonder, if you’re asked by the random stranger what your most memorable portraits were, which ones come instantly to mind?
Okay. So: Lachenmann—because it was the first, because he’s a towering figure… and then because, you know, in …zwei Gefühle… there’s that amazing piano vibrato moment? It’s just so great. It’s just hilarious. Seeing that brought out for me the humor that is part of his work—and you can’t know that unless you’ve seen the music live.
Everything you read about Lachenmann is vaguely terrifying. It’s forbidding.
MS: Yes, but then you see that. So that was a really great one. The Pierre Boulez portrait was amazing. The music department collaborated with us. He came and did a residency, and so I got to have lunch with Pierre Boulez. If you had told me, when I was an undergrad at the University of Connecticut, that one day you will have lunch with Pierre Boulez, I would have said that there’s no way, so that was pretty great. So then… gosh, it’s hard. I mean, I love them all.
Women composers were a part of the Composer Portraits mix from the very start. But when you took over – quietly, with no fanfare at all – suddenly there were more women, and more prominent women. That’s reflective of a sea change in the larger culture, but it’s also something you obviously did intentionally.
Absolutely. And I was really lucky that, in this ecosystem of the new-music community, there were journalists who were ready, willing, and able to draw attention to it, so that I didn’t have to. That was really great, to not be working in a vacuum in that regard, and to not have to be the one saying, “Hey, guys, you know: I’m the woman director, and look at all these women…”
Exactly. And if you’re waving that banner deliberately, however honest and earnest the initiative, it can be portrayed as artificial, or agenda-driven.
I work with great composers. We feature great composers in this series. It would be great if issues of diversity and inclusion and gender didn’t have to be a part of the conversation. They do. So it’s funny that the two examples that I’d think of right away are two from the beginning, and they’re both these towering old white male figures.
Right, but you know, that has our collective heritage in this field of endeavor. But while you and I are not precise contemporaries, we’re both representative of, and beneficiaries of, generations that have broadened the field and moved into new territories. So our towering figures now might be somebody completely different.
So then, let’s talk about the present season, which started with something fairly unconventional: a substantial Anthony Braxton portrait, part of the global Braxton75 celebration marking the composer’s 75th birthday. Braxton was not directly involved, but his Tri-Centric Foundation was. How did that come about?
Chris McIntyre, who’s now more involved with Either/Or, used to be on the board of Tri-Centric, and Richard [Carrick] and Either/Or have played some of Braxton’s music in the past. And then two years ago, when I created the Soundscape America series for the JACK Quartet, they did a piece by Braxton. So Braxton had been on my wishlist for a while, but it’s just like Everest: it’s intimidating. Where can I find a foothold in this vast range of music and of people?
Knowing that JACK Quartet was going to do a piece – they were going to talk with him, learn it, and work with the foundation, and a goal of the foundation was to get more of Braxton’s music out there being performed – I started talking with JACK. And I started talking with Richard, because obviously a whole evening of string-quartet music by Anthony Braxton, it would be hard to make that be a thing. They were a fit to be working together, and so it just went from there: yeah, let’s do it, and let’s do it as an opening night. What better way to launch the 20th anniversary of this series?
The portrait that followed was also a departure, in a sense: Vijay Iyer, who’d been featured previously in Miller’s jazz series, but not in the Composer Portrait format.
I’m a huge fan of his, and one drawback of being a huge fan of these composers, who I think are towering figures, is that sometimes I am shy about reaching out and making connections—I know, it’s silly, but it’s a limitation, right? I’m working on it. So he had played on our jazz series several times, and it’s crazy to me that I had not featured him as a composer. So he was here with the sextet last fall, and we were emailing about something; I was like, well, do you want to come and chat? So we got together, and I just admitted: you’re an incredible composer; let’s talk other projects. And then we made this composer portrait happen.
Annea Lockwood was another unorthodox choice for this kind of concert series.
Yes. I knew of her, but didn’t know that much about her until Russell Greenberg from Yarn/Wire included it as one of their pitches—we hang out a couple of times a year and talk about all the composers on their wishlist, and she was one of them. I was like, let me do some research, and I’ll think about it and get back to you—and I felt like it really made sense. And they updated [the pitch] because they had an opportunity for a possible commission of her, and I was like, let’s do a co-commission. That would be really exciting. Let’s do it. So that is how that one happened.
So you did your due diligence, you went and looked up Annea Lockwood, and the first thing you found probably was about burning pianos, right?
But if you first encounter those almost performance-art kinds of things, how do you make the leap and say, “What are we going to do, Russell? We can’t burn the grand piano.”
Yes, and Yarn/Wire, a two-piano, two-percussion ensemble, didn’t have a full evening of music in mind. Actually, they’d worked previously with JACK Quartet on an Enno Poppe Composer Portrait. So it was like, “Russell, what does this look like?” It was definitely a collaborative conversation with Russell, and with Annea weighing in. So in this case, they were more in the driver’s seat than me, because I didn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of her repertoire.
That in itself is evidence of the trust you extend toward your collaborators. Bright Sheng is a more conventional choice, in some ways, but perhaps not an obvious one.
He’s great. He has been on the wish list for a long time. We did the Chou Wen Chung Composer Portrait several years ago, and he had been a vice dean here in the school of the arts and the chair of the music department, and had a really interesting career: he was a composer, he was also the keeper of the Varèse estate and lived in Varèse’s house. And, as an administrator at Columbia University, he did a lot of work in recruiting a whole bunch of Chinese students to come to America and study here, including Tan Dun and Chen Yi – who we featured in a portrait – and Zhou Long and Bright Sheng.
So he’s been on the wish list, generally, of composers that I might like to work with. And, you know, it is not gnarly modernism; it’s beautiful, lush, gorgeous music, so finding the ensemble for whom that would be the right fit, it took a little time until that connection made sense.
I’ve been working with David Ludwig, who’s an amazing composer in his own right, and the director of the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble. They have a different composer in residence every fall, so when we did the Joan Tower Composer Portrait, it was in collaboration with David, because Joan was in residence there. And the musicians are phenomenal… I mean, really amazing and phenomenal. [Bright Sheng] is composer in residence there this fall, so it just really made sense, because they’re terrific and it’s a good match.
Coming up early next year, you’ve got Caroline Shaw with the Attacca Quartet, her close collaborators just lately.
Yeah. Wish list forever. And the obvious choice would be to do vocal music for Roomful of Teeth; she has a lot of it. The string quartet music was a slightly less obvious choice, so to me that was really compelling. But she didn’t want it to be only string quartet, and she had this project with So. And we’ve had a long relationship with them, so it totally made sense. I love her music, and I’m excited.
Then comes Oscar Bettison. Livres des Sauvages is just a kick-ass piece. I heard the premiere by Talea Ensemble last year during the Time Spans festival, and then I just got the new recording by Ensemble Musikfabrik, and that just confirmed what an incredible piece that is.
It’s big and crazy. He and Courtney Orlando are on the faculty together at Peabody Conservatory and he wrote Pale Icons of Night, a violin concerto, for Courtney.
Did this program come from Alarm Will Sound, then?
Yep. It had been a while since we’d worked with them, and it just made sense. They had this beautiful thing on their website about how literally their first performance was here at Miller Theatre, and how important that was. So knowing that this was our 20th anniversary, I really wanted to work with them. And Oscar’s a really great composer with whom to work.
Dai now is the close of a three-year trilogy of composers with whom ICE has had a very long, deep, and meaningful relationship. First was Marcos Balter, and the second, this past season, was Du Yun, and now Dai Fujikura. These are composers with whom ICE has had amazingly deep, fruitful, and productive relationships, and so it’s like: yes, please.
Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits series presents music by Bright Sheng, performed by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, on Dec. 5 at 8pm; millertheatre,com
Steve Smith is director of publication at National Sawdust, and editor and lead writer for National Sawdust Log. He contributes regularly to The New Yorker, previously worked as a freelance reviewer for The New York Times, and was an editor at the Boston Globe and Time Out New York.
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