At the end of the current concert season, one of the leading Boston cultural lights will begin to dim a bit. The announcement that 79-year-old musician, mentor and bon vivant Scott Nickrenz will retire from his position as Abrams Curator of Music at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum prompted us to talk with him about his gifts to our musical life.
As soon as her museum opened, in 1903, Mrs. Gardner began inviting friends to concerts featuring some of the world’s major players. Music has been central to the Palaces’ mission ever since. When Nickrenz arrived there in 1990, after a distinguished career as a violist—one reviewer noted in the 1970s that when performing he stood like a rock star—he could hold court over what was by some measures the oldest chamber music series in the country.
FLE: Even though the world is much more attuned to the new Calderwood Hall at the ISGM, many of us retain intense but mixed emotions about concerts we heard in the Tapestry Room for so many years. At one point there was a plan to continue them there as an adjunct to the Calderwood Hall series.
SN: A couple of times a year we invite patrons to concerts in the Tapestry Room. It’s a token of respect for love for the past, and to remind people that it was a major hall for so many years. There are stories that don’t go away, like when Glenn Gould lost his cufflinks at the piano.
The success of the music program there had a lot to do with the need for the new wing. When studies were done on the infrastructure, it was determined that the Palace couldn’t sustain the level of activity in its second hundred years as it managed in its first hundred. The new wing was first79 and foremost about conservation and preservation. We needed to be able to provide 21st-century amenities (like a shop and café) and space for the music program and additional programming that would be less taxing on the historic building.
You didn’t come up with the idea to build a new concert hall out of any sense of grandeur, but rather to save the Palace.
Right: even though the primary impetus was to preserve the Palace and the collection, the long planning period did allow me the luxury of dreaming and executing a new and necessary concert hall.
As much as we loved the Tapestry Room as part of Gardner’s vision, it had terrible sightlines and the people in the back rows were a long way from the stage.
Also the acoustics were terrible for the players. On the other hand, where else could people walk by Rembrandts and Raphaels on your way to a concert where you are surrounded by tapestries? Which unfortunately also killed the sound. But week after week, long lines of people elbowed their way into this experience.
So when it became time to start thinking about the new Calderwood Hall, you knew both what you liked and didn’t like about the old digs. Was it your crazy idea to have a cube with the stage in the middle of the floor?
Renzo Piano, the architect, presented many different concepts that were rejected. They were all conventional in that they had a stage at one end. From the start I said I wanted a hall without a stage. I also wanted to work with the world’s best acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, and got him together with Renzo. Renzo already had an acoustician, but I declared “I am 100% sure we will have the best small concert hall in the world if we work with Yasu”. He is a genius.
At one point did the Euclidian concept of two identical cubes—one a gallery and the other a concert hall—develop? And do you remember the moment when it became a cube with a stage in the middle?
Renzo’s fourth proposal showcased four floating pavilions hovering above a spacious glass-enclosed ground floor that became the genesis of the final design of the new wing. At that point he was still thinking stage on one end.
In their first working session in Paris, Renzo asked Toyota to talk to him about sound. “Sound travels upward,” Toyota explained. Within minutes Renzo imagined a large cubic volume for the hall.
Yasu said I need a cube for acoustics. That tied in with my idea to have a hall without a stage to allow audiences to be able to share the experience with each other. So in that moment came the final essence of what the concert hall was: Yasu’s “height” and my “no stage.” We also created intimacy by making 80% of the hall front-row seats. There are two rows of seats on the floor level and only one row deep on the three balconies. And that’s how we got a hall that I think will still be modern after 100 years.
The original plan called for the outer walls of the concert hall to be made of perforated plywood in the form of structural walls of concrete with a cavity that contained heavy drapes that could be deployed to deaden the reverberation. And in fact, if you go into the adjacent gallery that is also a 40-ft cube, it is horribly over-resonant. As I recall, you were surprised at how little resonance the new hall had before the drapes were ever spread out, and they were never used—in fact they were entirely removed.
Yasu said that he wanted flexibility, so we installed drapes so we could change the acoustics if and when needed. Yasu utilizes lots of technology but he really operates in a visceral way. He claps he hands and has an assistant crush a blown-up paper bag. So after the first pop, Yasu said we don’t need the drapes.
When you first stood in the hall alone with your viola, what did you think of the sound?
It’s not dry. It is clear and warm. Yasu said that we have to be patient. For the first time people can actually hear each other. The sound that he creates is known worldwide, but the artists have to get used to it. Once they do, they agree that it’s the finest sonic cube anywhere.
But there are issues with balance. You have a piano without a lid and much of its sound goes up, whereas the surrounding strings are more directional and beam at people on the floor.
The lid came off the piano because ours is a non-directional hall. The sound is equal everywhere rather than directed outward to an audience from the stage.
I also knew that the sound would get minutely richer as it went up.
And the glass panels are placed at a two-degree angle to avoid opposite parallel reflective surfaces.
Renzo had originally had wooden balcony fronts, and if you looked down you saw a slab of wood. After my first experience with the wood-fronted mockup, I said these panels are gone … it’s got to be glass.
I’ve sat in every balcony seat during a concert. You lean forward: sounds good; you lean back: sounds good. I have good ears. If you lean forward, it’s for the sightlines, not the acoustics.
Having the audience surrounding the performers has the advantage of placing everyone as close as possible to the performers, but sometimes creates balance and communication issues. We like to see singers and narrators, but Calderwood forces them to work the hall and somewhat selfconsciously address four sides in rotation.
Of course we can deal with this in our recordings, but we sometimes suggest that musicians seat themselves in ways they are not accustomed to. For instance, in a piano trio we suggest the cellist face the pianist rather than have their back towards the pianist. As a result, audiences have the opportunity to witness an intimate performance between musicians as they connect to each other.
Vocalists who stand instinctively know how to work the room.
So it’s only with lectures and when there are projections that you seat on three sides instead of four.
Sometimes our STIR or RISE performance will need one wall of the floor level for their equipment and/or projections.
I should add that normally with amplified performances, I have to remind them that this is an acoustical hall, and they work on adjustments.
Is the hall what you want us most to remember you by? Or are there musical moments that are unforgettable?
I’m very proud of supporting and molding young people through my entire life.
I am very proud at what has been accomplished here. The quality and consistency of the program over these years have been world-class—some established artists and some as yet unknown but soon to be famous.
I certainly am proud for my participation in building Calderwood Hall—an extraordinary space, it will be a lasting legacy for the next hundred years.
Did that focus represent a change from what you found when you arrived?
There were some good concerts and some really awful ones, but things basically were falling apart when Anne Hawley arrived. She knew that the music program needed to be revived and asked Yo-Yo Ma for suggestions and he told her to go get me. I was her first hire! She hired me with support from Larry Lesser at NEC, where I was given the title “assistant to the president.” They had to stick some title on me! I needed both jobs to be able to afford leaving my comfortable position in New York and moving here.
Now you talk about having young people involved; is that why you take so many performers from Ravinia, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Young Concert Artists, and Musicians from Marlboro. Do you have any say on who comes?
Absolutely not, but I trust that those organization will send performers who will be sensational.
As a concert programmer myself, I often hear from artists’ managers that Scott Nickrenz “never calls us back, do you know him?” Are you so locked in by the commitments to the presenters you just mentioned that you don’t have time for over-the-transom suggestions?
We have a very busy schedule and book far in advance. We have many continuing commitments with the groups you mentioned, though they feature different performers to make sure it always stays fresh. I also like to do series concerts and that takes up slots in the schedule.
I try to leave enough flexibility to do some crazy new things. In 2018-2019 I will have this huge, gigantic [he was YCA, but he hasn’t had any of the breaks] Russian pianist Gleb Ivanov doing all of the Prokofiev sonatas in back-to-back recitals. Is the audience going to like that? We’ll have to see!
So you like to indulge your own taste some of the time.
More than some of the time!
Your nurturing role is certainly an extensive part of your legacy. Over the years you have supported Bostonian groups like the Borromeo, but have looked to Europe as well, because quite frankly, with all the wonderful free concerts happening at the conservatories, you want to bring your audiences a different mix.
I’m very much aware of the huge talent in Europe. For instance, look at the Finish pianist Paavali Jumppanen; he’s suberb.
His Debussy Etudes were the best I have ever heard.
I’m not surprised.
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For someone who is not techno-savvy—you don’t surf the web and you don’t do email—how did you come to develop the podcasts that receive over 6 million downloads a year?
The joke was that “Scott wouldn’t know a podcast if it bit him.” I was surrounded by young people who understood the opportunity more than I ever could have. It was my assistant at the time, Charlotte Landrum, who came up with the idea for the podcasts. I have a tremendous guru, who runs the Harvard School of Internet Law, who led the way.
By the way, how’s your tennis game? I gather you could have been a contender.
Well, I was the New York state tennis champion in high school! But then I got conned into going into classical music and tennis took a back seat.
Later on a ligament in my right shoulder went, and I could live with that since I was a lefthander, but then the right shoulder went too. Then the back went and I had a stroke. And just like that, there was no viola either. But I’m happy with what I do.
Are you going to be helpful or annoying to your successor or both?
I will be helpful and not annoying and look forward in assisting in any way I can.
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From the ISGM press release we learn that Nickrenz started playing violin at age 13 and appeared as a pianist on television’s earliest live broadcasts, Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. He earned a scholarship to Curtis, where he changed to viola, and went on to become a Fromm Fellow at Tanglewood, working closely with Aaron Copland, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Leon Kirchner, and Gunther Schuller.
In 1975, he was named director of chamber music at BAM, and brought in renowned musicians from all over the world and produced three festivals of American country music. He has toured the world, too, as musician, including Africa, Latin America, and Europe. He played with the Claremont String Quartet and helped found the Lenox String Quartet, the Vermeer Quartet, the Orpheus Trio, and Third Stream music with the Modern Jazz Quartet. He was also a founding member of the North Carolina School for the Arts. From 1978 to 2003, Nickrenz was director of the chamber music concerts at Spoleto Festivals in Charleston SC, Spoleto Italy, and Melbourne Australia. He also directed the New World Symphony’s chamber program in Miami until 2009 while concurrently serving as an adviser to president Laurence Lesser at NEC.
Throughout his career at the Gardner Museum, Nickrenz fostered talent and collaborations with such groups as the Museum’s resident chamber orchestra, A Far Cry; Musicians from Marlboro; the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute; Borromeo Quartet; Handel and Haydn Society; and the Boston Children’s Chorus. He also created the Young Artists Showcase, Vivaldi in the Courtyard, Concerts under the Canopy, and Avant Gardner featuring Composer Portraits from the Miller Theater of Columbia University. Nickrenz has mentored many musicians including violinists Joshua Bell and Corey Cerovsek, pianists Jean Yves Thibaudet, Yefim Bronfman, Jeremy Denk, Paavali Jumppanen, and Jonathan Biss. Last year, he was part of the team that created the new RISE series at the Gardner, featuring pop, rock, and hip-hop. RISE is curated by Shea Rose and Simone Scazzocchio to draw younger audiences.
Nickrenz is married to flutist Paula Robison and has two daughters: Erika Nickrenz, pianist of the Eroica Trio, and Elizabeth Nickrenz Fein, assistant professor at Duquesne University.