The Lucid Culture Interview: The Miller Theatre’s Melissa Smey
This blog takes a generally dim view of booking agents and talent buyers. Driven and sometimes desperate for filthy lucre, there’s no telling how low some of them will go to fill the seats wherever they happen to be. One notable exception is Melissa Smey, the enthusiastic director at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre uptown. An unabashed fan of a staggering number of genres from one end of the musical spectrum to the other, over the last two years she’s booked a diversity of programming unrivalled at any other music venue in New York, and for that matter, maybe the world. The Miller Theatre’s 2012-13 season includes lush, majestic choral music, a vast supply of cutting-edge indie classical ensembles, and an exciting jazz series featuring the bands of Christian McBride, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Wycliffe Gordon, among others. In addition to running the theatre, she also heads up the Columbia Arts Initiative to help encourage students to make the arts a regular part of their lives. Somehow she found the time to shed some light on this:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: What is your agenda here – other than to put bodies in the seats?
Melissa Smey: I absolutely love working in the arts, promoting the arts and developing new audiences, and supporting the composers, musicians, and ensembles we work with so they can realize their artistic vision. I think arts and culture should be a part of everyone’s daily life. It shouldn’t be a luxury or feel unattainable.
LCC: Is there a legacy here left behind by George Steel – who moved on to the New York City Opera, I believe – and if so, what is that legacy and how do you plan to keep it going – or not?
MS: I think one of George Steel’s most incredible contributions to Miller Theatre, and to the field of contemporary music, was the creation of the Composer Portraits series. The format, now nationally recognized and widely emulated, showcases a range of works by a single composer. Since the series was founded, in 1999, we have featured over 100 composers, from Steve Reich, John Zorn, and Julia Wolfe, to Kaija Saariaho, Helmut Lachenmann, and Chaya Czernowin. It’s at the heart of Miller’s programming and very close to mine! Not only have I kept it going, I’m committed to making sure the idea stays current. I’ve made commissioning new work an important component. Last season we featured world premiere performances of new works by John Zorn, Hilda Paredes, and Georges Aperghis. This coming season we’re working with Enno Poppe and Julio Estrada. More are in the works (really good ones!). Also, I’ve made it a priority to bring as many composers as possible to Miller Theatre, we host them in residence of four to five days so they can work closely with the musicians in rehearsal. We also have an onstage discussion right after intermission, and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about this from our audience.
LCC: You must really love what you do, since you do so much of it. How many of the shows that you book do you actually get the opportunity to see?
MS: You are right – I really do love what I do. I attend every performance we produce or present. Perhaps I’m still in the newlywed phase as an arts programmer, but I love every performance that goes into the Miller season and I actually want to be there for each of them. I think this enthusiasm is part of what helps us to make a genuine connection with our audiences.
LCC: You’re a musician yourself. What’s your instrument…and do you ever get the chance to play anymore?
MS: I was a flute player for many years, played recorder and sang in a collegium group, and last summer I dabbled a bit with ukulele – not well!
LCC: It seems pretty obvious to me that you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose from among the best performers, across the musical spectrum, in pretty much its entirety. Which ultimately reflects very well on you: the Miller Theatre may not have been a prestige venue ten years ago, but it is now. As someone who has put together a show or two myself, I’m always curious about how these things happen: so many of them seem completely random, although not at your place. Could you give me a rough guess as to how many of the acts on the schedule were pitched to you, whether by the artists themselves, or their agents, versus the shows you came up with on your own?
MS: For the most part, we actively produce all of our performances. It’s my goal to curate a season of programs that can’t be seen or heard anywhere else. I embrace a repertoire-centered approach to programming, I care about each individual piece. For Composer Portraits, I collaborate with the composers and musicians to develop a program that is unique, demonstrates the breadth of the composer’s work, and shows the ensemble to best advantage. We try to feature works for larger forces that are more difficult for ensembles to self-produce in smaller venues. Increasingly, I’m bringing these same values to our Early Music and Jazz series. It’s a process, but it’s important to me to build relationships with musicians and ensembles so we can work together to develop new programs that are truly made at Miller.
LCC: The Miller Theatre’s diversity of programming is even more astonishing. Your season kicks off on September 12 with Le Poeme Harmonique singing early Venetian music; you’ve paired the frivolity of John Cage with Rzewski’s crushingly difficult, intense The People…you’re introducing all sorts of up-and-coming composers…even the jazz runs the gamut, from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indian-flavored hard bop to Wycliffe Gordon’s purist style. Literally something for everyone, from way, way outside the mainstream, to music that’s accessible to the nth degree. Your job seems to me to be the equivalent of on-the-job training for a doctorate in music. Is that true – and is that deliberate on your part, to expose yourself to as many different styles and schools of thought as possible?
MS: My goal is to embrace great music regardless of genre. The most important criteria to me is whether it’s something I’d enjoy listening to for two hours. And is it something that I want to experience live, not just study with recordings or scores. I love that at Columbia, which historically was the home of ‘uptown music’, we can now program portraits of Pierre Boulez and Julia Wolfe in immediate succession.
LCC: I think we both agree that good music can be financially lucrative. Yet the Miller Theatre has a leg up on other venues since it has its own line in the Columbia University budget. To what degree does that liberate you from having to fret over whether or not a certain concert, or even a series, has to turn a profit?
MS: We are incredibly lucky, and deeply grateful, to have the full support of Columbia University behind us. And being a campus-based presenter provides amazing opportunities for audience development – there is an entire class of potential new audience members coming to campus every fall! The University embraces research and innovation across an astonishing variety of disciplines, and it’s no different for us at Miller. That said, we do have to raise the money to underwrite every single performance we put on the Miller stage. We’ve made a commitment to keeping ticket prices low. This means, like all non- profits, we have to raise money to fill the gap between what we earn in ticket sales and what it costs to produce performances.
LCC: The toughest job you have, it seems to me, is being in charge of fundraising. What kind of hoops do you find yourself having to jump through in these difficult times? Where do you turn when a reliable source of revenue suddenly vanishes?
MS: It’s been a tough few years for cultural organizations in general and for contemporary music in particular. Some major foundations that funded contemporary music in New York City, like the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and the Greenwall Foundation, have ceased their operations. We’ve looked increasingly to individuals for support of our programs. I believe we are poised for success in this area – we’ve seen increases in both subscribers and single ticket buyers over the last three years and we’re getting rave reviews for our programming from journalists and audiences alike. For an individual looking to make a difference in supporting contemporary music in New York City, there is really no better investment than Miller Theatre because every dollar we raise goes directly into producing the art on our stage.
LCC: I’m all for free beer as long as it isn’t my beer that’s being given away, but doesn’t the idea of a pop-up concert, as your series of early-evening indie classical shows is called, run completely counter to the idea of substantial music? Like a pop-up hospital, or a pop-up fire department? Or is this simply a kind of branding to lure the idle classes out of their Bushwick lofts? For that matter, do you really think that the idle classes can be lured out of Bushwick to begin with, let alone as far uptown as 116th Street? Even with free beer?
MS: I developed the Pop Up Concerts so I would have an outlet for the brilliant musicians and programs that aren’t a natural fit in one of our other series. I also wanted the freedom to schedule a concert on short notice – our season programming is booked 18-24 months in advance. What distinguishes these concerts from our others is the size of the ensembles – two to five musicians – and the intimacy of the setting. The caliber of the performances is the same for everything we do: excellent. All of the concerts were completely packed.
LCC: Well, with free beer…
MS: People stayed long after the music ended to chat and mingle with the musicians and each other. I wanted a format that would feel like hanging out in a living room listening to good music with your friends. I love the intimate feel between the audience and with the performers at venues like the Stone and the Village Vanguard. I think it helps listeners to make a closer connection to the artists and the music.
LCC: Tell me about Morningside Lights, your puppet parade for families, and for everybody else too. That sounds like a lot of fun…
MS: The Morningside Lights workshops, September 22 to 28 and procession on the 29th are going to be so much fun! We’re building on the partnerships we developed when we produced John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit in Morningside Park in June 2011. I love taking music out of the concert hall and finding ways to connect with the community. For this project, we’re collaborating with Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles of Processional Arts Workshop, the composer Nathan Davis, and the Friends of Morningside Park. It will be unlike anything else we’ve ever done.
LCC: What do you listen to at home? Wild guess: Dolly Parton? L’il Kim? Pauline Oliveros? Or after a day full of sound, do you prefer silence?
MS: I listen to everything. I’ve always been a fan of indie rock, I’m going to Grizzly Bear at Radio City and ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties] next month. I’m also willing to admit that I listen to a fair amount of pop music on the radio, Gooset Brown has a cool show on WBLS Friday after work that I’ll sometimes catch.
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