5 Questions to Melissa Smey (Executive Director, Miller Theatre)

As executive director at Miller Theatre, Melissa Smey has concerned herself with commissioning works and events that diversify and energize the field of new music. She has commissioned works from composers such as Julio Estrada and Hilda Paredes, produced the outdoor premiere of a John Luther Adams work involving a thousand percussion instruments, and coordinates premieres of musical and ballet productions throughout the year. Before taking on her role at Miller Theatre, Smey worked at the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Opera, and serves on the board of Early Music America. We asked her five questions ahead of the Miller Theatre’s first Composer Portrait Series concert of the season on November 16, 2017 featuring Marcos Balter.

What’s the process like for selecting composers for the Composer Portraits at Miller Theatre?

The most important consideration for all programming at Miller Theatre is artistic excellence – working with composers, musicians, and ensembles who are making outstanding contributions to the field. New York City has such an incredibly vibrant new music scene. I strive to produce programming that adds something unique to the landscape. My process is collaborative, and this is central to my programming philosophy. I find that I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve developed with artists, composers, and musicians over the years, and the work we’ve created together as a result of these collaborations. It is a priority to feature composers whose work encompasses a wide range of stylistic practices. I am not interested in being the “woman director” who programs “women composers,” but I do think it’s important to address an ongoing lack of representation of women in classical music programming.

When I programmed my first season at Miller Theatre, in 2010-11, I decided to focus on living composers and making an onstage conversation a central feature of each Portrait (the talk happens right after the intermission). I’m passionate about audience development, and connecting audiences to the arts–particularly contemporary music–requires thoughtful effort. I think hearing from a composer first-hand adds real value to the concert-going experience. In recent seasons, I’ve been working more with composers in their 30s, changing the approach from a career-long retrospective to a true Portrait of where they are in that moment.

Miller Theatre at Columbia University–Photo by Matthew Murphy

What sort of sounds can audiences expect at Miller this year, from both the Composer Portraits as well as the Pop-Up Concerts?

Miller Theatre is so well known for contemporary music, but my programming here spans a wide range, and includes series dedicated to Bach, early music, and jazz. There are two upcoming Pop-Up Concerts that promise to be particularly fun–later this month, on November 21, the Brooklyn-based Brazilian choro band Regional de NY will return (they made their Miller debut with Anat Cohen on our jazz series in 2015) and on December 11 we’re throwing an ugly holiday sweater Pop-Up with Genghis Barbie. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the musicians in both ensembles are world-class talents. So while the premise for these two is lively and merry, audiences can expect a high level of artistry.

What do you see as Miller Theatre’s role in the NYC new music scene?

New music is at the heart of what we do at Miller Theatre, and we’ve been dedicated to the endeavor for nearly 30 years now. At Miller, we have made an ongoing commitment to supporting living composers and local new music ensembles, and we foster an environment that enables them to do their best work. As I mentioned earlier, collaboration is central to my process and our best relationships are nurtured over many years and multiple projects. I’m proud that we have played a role in the evolution of so many truly wonderful ensembles. I’ve also made commissioning a central feature of the Composer Portraits, supporting the creation of 23 new works since 2011. We’re able to provide a valuable resource by devoting a week’s time onstage for rehearsals, with the composer in attendance.

Audience development is also central to what makes Miller Theatre so special. We’re based on the campus of Columbia University, in close proximity to tens of thousands of students. There’s a spirit of inquiry that is an essential facet of campus life, and we embrace that. We partner with faculty in the Department of Music to promote our programming, which is especially relevant because every Columbia undergrad takes Masterpieces of Western Music as part of their core curriculum. We’ve developed outreach programs to enhance the connection, including bringing composers into the classroom and bringing classes to Miller. It’s been successful–over the past three seasons, an average of 24% of our audience are students and people under age 25. This is a benefit for all, for the NYC new music scene and for the field of classical music more broadly.

We also have the resources to do big projects. While I think of Miller Theatre as a modest player in comparison to the city’s major cultural institutions, we’re co-commissioning Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s new opera Proving Up with Washington National Opera and Opera Omaha, and we’ll present it as the opening night of Miller Theatre’s 30th Anniversary Season next September. We also produced the U.S. premiere productions of Kaija Saariaho’s ballet Maa and James Dillon’s epic new music cycle Nine Rivers, and the urban outdoor premiere of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit, featuring 99 musicians and 1,000 percussion instruments for an audience of over 2,500 in Harlem’s Morningside Park.

When people think of Miller Theatre, I hope they have an impression of a welcoming, friendly space for discovering adventurous new music.

Melissa Smey, Kaija Saariaho, and Jennifer Koh--Photo by Jenny Anderson

Melissa Smey, Kaija Saariaho, and Jennifer Koh–Photo by Jenny Anderson

You previously worked at the New York Public Library and the Met Opera. How did you get interested in the contemporary music side of the arts scene?

At heart, I’m an enthusiast. I’m curious about learning new things and enjoy delving into subjects that capture my interest. When I started working in the press office at the Metropolitan Opera in 1996, I had been to an opera only once, on a high school field trip (it was a good one–James Levine conducting Marriage of Figaro, with Kathleen Battle as Susanna). Something that made a big impression on me during my three years at the Met was how deeply devoted my colleagues were–to the company, to the singers, and to the form. They were true believers, and it motivated me to learn as much as possible about opera.

I think it’s brave to admit what you don’t know, especially the things you’re “supposed” to know. So I’ll make a confession: when I started working at Miller Theatre in 2001, I didn’t know the difference between Chaya Czernowin and Kaija Saariaho. My goal when I moved to New York was to gain enough experience to one day run a campus-based presenting organization. Since Miller’s specialty was contemporary music, I made a commitment to learning more. I looked at historical info, at what was happening in the city’s music scene, and what was going on in Europe. I attended hundreds of concerts, read a lot, went to conferences and festivals, and talked to peers and leaders at other cultural organizations. Sixteen years later, I’ve had the privilege of working with both Chaya and Kaija, and remain just as dedicated to learning more.

From your administrative perspective, what advice do you have for emerging non-white-male musicians and composers trying to make their way in the frequently sexist and racist world of contemporary classical music?

That’s a really tough question. It’s challenging to be an emerging voice in any field or endeavor. The exclusionary “old boys’ network” is alive and well in some quarters of the cultural sector, and in so many aspects of daily life. I think it’s important to cultivate a network of friends, colleagues, and professional mentors who can provide advice and support. Historically, the avant-garde has embraced change and has been a haven for difference. Working in new music, I’m optimistic that change is coming–who you are is part of what makes people interested in what you do, and I think audiences are definitely seeking out diverse voices.

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