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Steeling the ISGM for Things To Come


To chamber music aficionados, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Sunday Afternoon Concert Series is the closest thing Bostonians can get to Wigmore Hall. Essential to Mrs. Gardner from the beginning of her long and generous reign, these events have continued for over 100 years as the founder would have wanted them—idiosyncratically. 

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 Palace’s mission ever since. When outgoing Abrams Curator of Music Scott Nickrenz arrived at there in 1990, after a distinguished career as a violist, he could hold court over what was by some measures the oldest chamber music series in the country. The conclusion [interview here] of Nickrenz’s astonishingly successful 25-year tenure on January 1st induced us to meet and interview his successor, George Steel. Lively, courageous and well-networked, the New Yorker counts his creds as conductor, composer, impresario, singer, pianist, musicologist, opera company director and teacher. Check out his Wiki for the details.

“We are overjoyed that a talent as versatile as George Steel will lead the Gardner’s highly respected music department,” said Peggy Fogelman, the Museum’s Norma Jean Calderwood Director. “He comes with a breadth of experience, directing music from classical, operatic, and vocal traditions, and is a deeply skilled trailblazer in performing arts. This magical combination is essential to our efforts to broaden the creative reach of the Museum—just as Isabella envisioned.”

Though Steel will oversee some new programming that may mix music, dance, theater and poetry—and interact with the museum’s galleries and exhibitions—he made clear from the outset of our conversation that the sacrosanct Sunday Afternoon Concert Series will grow and develop his imprint without shock, awe or trauma.

FLE: As the Museum’s Visiting Curator for Performing Arts since March 2017, you have already invigorated the miseenscène with dance, cabaret, theater, spoken word, poetry readings, and jazz popup events. Please begin to introduce yourself with a description of how the Vox Ensemble under your direction made the Palace courtyard resound with Renaissance polyphony. It’s usually unnaturally quiet there.

GS: When I came to the Museum a year or so ago as the visiting curator of performance, our visionary director Peggy Fogelman challenged me to think of programming that could respond to the galleries of the Museum and its historic collection. I had long dreamt of Renaissance polyphony in the Museum’s glorious interior Courtyard; so I knew that would one of my earliest projects.

Interestingly, Isabella left an endowment for a requiem mass to be said every year on her birthday. I thought it would be glorious and in her spirit to perform a more public requiem, as both a memorial and a celebration, and so I decided to conduct the polyphonic Requiem mass of Portuguese composer Manuel Cardoso.  I invited my group Vox to perform it.  Simply put, the power of the room filled with music overwhelmed me. I will make it a regular tradition!

Will you be bon vivant impresario pressing your vision upon us and welcoming us into your lively and diverse world?

My dear friend Scott Nickrenz owns the moniker “bon vivant impresario”—so I will demur on that one. In fact, it was he who cheerfully invited me to bring concerts to the Gardner more than a decade ago (so I have been an admirer of his for a long time!). But I hope very much to be able both to strengthen the landmark Sunday Concert series that he built up into something incredible, and also to develop new exciting directions for the Museum.  Isabella Stewart Gardner was a woman of broad artistic taste and a flair for the dramatic. I will have to run forever to get even close to what she achieved!

As an opera director you have developed a personal Gesamtkunst. Will that somehow allow your offerings to transcend their disparate natures? Who knows what will be popping up all over the place. Will this annoy people who just want to commune quietly with the pictures? Will it add to out understanding of the pictures as your cabaret night did for the William James exhibit?

Isabella pursued a personal and inclusive vision of the arts, brought together in unexpected ways. In fact, she was something of a Wagnerite herself (she traveled to Bayreuth, having studied the relevant scores in advance). So I think she very much imagined her own artistic legacy as a Gesamtkunstwerk, as you say, embracing art, architecture, music, landscape and gardening, education—as well as poetry, theater, dance, and more. I want to find the right occasions for apt  “interventions” in the historic galleries, as well as traditional (and nontraditional) performances in Calderwood Hall. I hope very much that the programs will connect visitors with the collections. I believe very deeply that the arts permeate and elucidate each other. After all, artists don’t stay inside boundaries very well: Wagner was a poet, Sargent was an astonishing pianist, William Blake was a painter, Balanchine was a conductor and a songwriter! Contemporary artists are even more inclined to multidisciplinary work. So must we all be.

So many times we have been deeply moved by the Sunday afternoon concerts under Scott, but we don’t often detect his hand in the programmatic choices, other than some of his memorable overviews of individual composers. In general, thematic programming seems not to be his thing. Understanding that the series is already 80% booked for next season, can you tell us how your 20% will define you? Do you want to talk about bringing in a chin mounted viola/cello for Bach followed by modern instrument interpretations of the same works? I gather that early music and new music mean much to you.

I am a huge admirer of all the Scott achieved. I revere both the programs he made, and all that he accomplished. It was no easy feat, I know from experience. The priorities that he established will be in many cases the same as mine: beauty and excellence, promoting young artists, and burnishing one of the most important chamber music series in the country.  It has been a particular joy to finish putting together the 2018-19 season, which, as you say correctly, Scott had already mostly assembled. But I have been able to work directly with the performers to draw out a few thematic ideas across the season, and to add a few programs with more of my personal stamp on them. For example, Scott had already had the genius to hire the spectacular French/Canadian cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras to come perform three of the Bach cello suites. This is a major, major artist—you cannot believe how beautiful his Bach playing is! To complement that program, I have invited Sergey Malov to make his Boston debut (perhaps his US debut), playing the other three Bach cello suites on the violoncello da spalla. This is an extraordinary instrument—a small cello played on the shoulder, like a violin—Bach loved it. It may in fact be that this is the instrument Bach intended for some (or perhaps all) of the Suites! It has only very recently been revived—Sergey Malov is perhaps the only superb player of it in the world. Given that Boston is the most important early music city in the US—and given that the Museum has an excellent viola d’amore in its collection (another somewhat forgotten, gorgeous string instrument)—I thought it was fitting and exciting to explore the ever-widening frontiers of historical performance practice adjacent to world-class modern instrument practice. It will be an amazing and ear-opening pair of concerts.

Does it appeal to you to reenact some tributes to Mrs. Gardner’s favorites like Busoni and Loeffler? I was astonished to learn from you that Singer Sargent accompanied Loeffler with some distinction.

I have already been able to spend time in the Museum’s wonderful archives, and I spent a huge amount of time researching music, dance, poetry, and art that relate to the collection (a great example is the recent cabaret we mounted that juxtaposed readings from Henry James’s novels and his correspondence with Isabella, with songs by Cole Porter, Sondheim, Tracy Chapman, Rufus Wainwright, and Dolly Parton, among many others). That is the kind of fresh context, rooted in research, that for me brings the collection alive. I love the work, and look forward to doing much more!

Yes, Sargent accompanied Charles Martin Loeffler in Lalo and Fauré at a private house concert for Mrs. Gardner. That has already given me fodder for an event.

Scott Nickrenz’s most enduring legacy will no doubt be Calderwood Hall, an amazing space that challenges and inspires players and patrons. But it doesn’t work for everything. Vocalists don’t like to be seen simultaneously from four sides and the tops of their heads, and they don’t like to pirouette to make face contact with their audiences. I gather you have made some experiments with tall directors’ chairs that could permit three rows of unobstructed sightlines on the floor from three sides of the cube without any loss of seats. Thus artists would present their backsides only to a back wall.

Calderwood Hall is a magical and unique space. Scott should be painted into the murals at the Boston Public Library for his dogged and visionary work to bring it to fruition! Music in that room is, simply put, dazzling. I plan to push the room in new directions to see all that it can do (like taking a sports car out on the road to see all it can do!). The room was optimized for chamber music, so there are some kinds of music that are better served by other specialized spaces—Renaissance polyphony, for example, which is pure magic in the Courtyard.

But I love the seating on four sides! It is like a cross between a gracious living room and a ring for gladiatorial combat: welcoming and thrilling at the same time. And the audience has the performer in their laps. Amazing.

As with any new high-performance gear, we, and our artists, are still learning how to use it to its full power, safely!

Are you willing to make any experiments with hard panels in against the perforated plywood walls to increase warmth and reverberation for certain events?

I am always listening to every room I walk in to. And I am always trying to imagine what the best kind of performance for a specific space is—and to think of fresh ways to present new kinds of work in unexpected spaces. Having listened to a lot of rooms very closely, I can tell you that the acoustics in Calderwood Hall are nothing short of amazing.

As far as changes, I am focused much more on finding the right technical equipment (lighting, sound, flooring, seating) to support our performances. As I say, we are still learning how to use the room as it is to its fullest advantage—how to “perform on” the instrument. That is a very happy and engaging project!

Give us a scoop…how about a boxing match or an aerial act? You apparently have already inquired about rigging points in the ceiling.

It is true. On walking into Calderwood, I instantly began to dream about exploiting the vertical dimension of the Hall. (I think many visitors have that impulse.) So I am looking at ways we could do that. It may require some technical magic first. But that is a mad idea for later.

I gather that we can expect to see Scott in his familiar corner seat for years to come. Has he given you any advice? Has he shared his secret sauce for patron loyalty? Will you be an eavesdropping/market-researching, gladhanding presence at the concerts?

I talk to Scott and Paula all the time. They are dear friends. Yes, Scott has been attending regularly since his retirement, and I fully expect him to continue to be a fixture. I have known and loved him for a long time, and he has given me plenty of advice over the years. As colleagues will do, I have blithely ignored some of his best advice (to my occasional peril), and I have, in my more sage moments, taken his enormous experience to heart. His secret sauce for patron loyalty is simple: programming what he believes in most deeply. And that credo is etched upon my soul, too.

I look forward to watching and listening at every show we do. That is the only way to learn and grow. And what a joy it is!

In the event of a last-minute cancellation, what are you willing to sing and play?

I am drawing up contingency plans for just such an emergency, but after hundreds of pages, I can’t seem to get past my own onerous demands for a special lighting plot and lavish greenroom amenities!

In all seriousness, I will certainly participate in the musicmaking at the Museum. But I hope it won’t be under emergency conditions.

I gather you may bring some chamber opera to the ISGM, but do you expect a second or third act in grand opera?

Goodness, what a thought! I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do. I’ll leave the defenestration of Floria Tosca to others.

But seriously, I do think there are wonderful ways in which the Gardner can present theatrical work—serenatas, chambers operas, and perhaps even musical theater. I look forward to exploring them.

What does the museum expect of you and how do you wish to be evaluated?

Well, I hope they are the same things. I am here to curate a remarkable concert series, to develop new programming models for the Museum that are integrated into its central curatorial mission. And I am working to expand what we present and to expand our audience reach. I want to support young artists, to diversify our repertoire and performers, and to present superb concerts for Boston audiences. 

You seem quite excited with the toolkit this job provides. I expect that excitement to be contagious.

Thanks, Lee! I can’t tell you how exhilarating it is to be at the Museum, working with truly wonderful and brilliant colleagues, and helping to move the Gardner ever forward. Isabella herself continues to point the way.

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