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Only at the Gardner, Starting September 8th


George Steel: Mr. Music at ISGM

George Steel, the Gardner Museum’s new Abrams curator of music, has inked a fall season featuring three orchestras, multidimensional Bach, a purpose-built opera, exciting debuts, rewarding return engagements, not to mention a season-long tribute to Leonard Bernstein. His inaugural interview with BMInt, last year, certainly scintillated [HERE]. So once again we asked him to reflect on his appealing artistic manifesto. (The complete fall-season listing is at the end.)

According to the New York Times, you have “… long been a champion of “ways to make classical music matter to new generations of listeners.” I get that fact that presenters need to replace old geezers with up-and-coming-geezers, but hasn’t that always been the case? What sorts of classical presentations appeal more to 20-somethings and terrify over-60s?

As I am getting to be a geezer myself, I am sensitive to any idea of “replacing” older audiences with younger ones. Quite the opposite. The magic of the Gardner is at its peak when it creates a “big room”—one where old and young feel equally at home; where connoisseurs and first-timers share the thrill of hearing music and seeing art with fresh ears and eyes; where unhelpful shibboleths like “high culture” and “low culture” are regularly and joyfully flouted; and where music, dance, and visual art exist in sparkling dialogue.

I think some of the keys to making classical presentations feel inviting to the widest possible audience are these:

– Adventuresomeness; 
– Clarity in programming—a program must make its own argument, even to someone who walks in without any preparation; 
– Conversely, context: make additional supporting information available, if visitors want it;
– Sense of place: The audience has to feel urgency in the programming and in the performances, and connections with the collection and exhibitions—these are not routine performances on a touring circuit, but rather eye-opening, ear-opening performances that “could happen only at the Gardner.”

Do you see barriers between artists and audiences that need to be eradicated? Scott Nickrenz certainly banished the barrier of the proscenium from the Calderwood. I hope we don’t have to endure such novelties as instrument petting zoos.

Gee, I kind of love instrument petting zoos! Especially with instruments I don’t know or have never seen or heard in person. This season we have two superb musicians playing Bach’s six cello suites. three each on two different recitals. The first, Sergey Malov, is making his Boston debut playing the violoncello da spalla. This is an extraordinary instrument that Bach himself played; it is only now being rediscovered. I can’t wait to hear Sergey play it live; he is perhaps the world’s leading exponent of the instrument. He will be giving a post-concert lecture / demonstration of the instrument (a kind of petting zoo), and I personally can’t wait!

The Gardner in fact has several unusual musical instruments in its collection, most notably the Eberle viola d’amore in the Yellow Room. So I feel a kind of mandate to explore instruments and repertoire that are little-known now but that received attention from the greatest composers we know. And Bach’s relationship with the violoncello da spalla is exactly such a relationship.

But I think the most important barrier we can remove is the idea that one ought to know all the music on a concert before coming. That is a terrible message, and one that I think potential audiences hear from concert producers, even if unintentionally. Audiences come to museums to learn, and they should come to concerts to learn. That is the source of the joy.

If my powers of divination are correct, you are proposing to take more detours from the 19th century than in years past? Is that a personal choice or the result of marketing?

I am certainly continuing Scott’s interest in expanding the historical reach of our programming. He always presented recent work, something I will continue: we have a world premiere commission from Jessica Meyer on our season opener. And I am interested in folding in older music as well.

Many familiar artists and ensembles will be returning, so you are not shattering any molds. But I like seeing connections such as in your five-concert Bach Festival which looks at the master through lenses ground in several periods. Will Malov’s cello de spalla in suites 2, 3, and 6 sound like a toy compared with Jean-Guihen Queyras’s take on suites 1, 4 and 5 on an old-master cello?

Scott programmed about 80% of the coming season, so our audiences will feel his familiar hand on the tiller, for sure. When I saw that he had programmed Queyras, who is simply astonishing playing Bach’s cello suites, I had the idea to invite Malov to play the other three. The juxtaposition of these two wonderful artists is sure to be one of the great treats of the fall. As I mentioned before, Bach himself played the violoncello da spalla—and may have intended some or all of the suites for this instrument. So Sergey’s performance will make a remarkable case for it as a vehicle, and he plays it wonderfully. But Jean-Guihen is extraordinary too, and his profound and elegant sense of articulation gives his Bach performances a rare kind of rhetorical clarity. Hearing him play these suites is like hearing Mark Rylance deliver Shakespeare: the surface complexities of the language fall away, and the audience hears pure, impassioned musical speech.

Sergey Malov plays Bach on the violoncello da spalla HERE .

And we get to hear Bach’s Art of Fugue on piano with Gardner regular Paavali Jumppanen and more solo Bach on standard violin with Corey Cerovsek. What will HIPsters say?

I am fascinated, as we all ought to be, of the startling insights that HIP continues to give us into how music might have been intended to sound. But at the same time, I am riveted by the insights that great musicians from every age bring to older masterpieces. So I think broadening one’s understanding, of Bach especially, demands that we listen to brilliant artists from many differing performance traditions who have something substantial to say.

The Handel and Haydn Society will do all six Brandenburgs in period style to finish the fall season. That should make quite an impression.

What a treat to get to work with H&H! And yes, the Brandenburgs are one of our most popular concerts!

Will ISGM have three orchestras in residence? Please contrast the new local all-arounders, the Phoenix, with the riddle of the Sphinx, and the reliably engaging of Far Cry.

A Far Cry is our first and continuing ensemble in residence. It is hard to believe, but this will be their ninth year of a 10-year residency. They are a knockout, needless to say. We are only just beginning to think of who might follow in their giant footsteps. I am delighted to have the Boston-based Phoenix ensemble for their Gardner debut, in a program that features Copland’s original version of Appalachian Spring. Sphinx is nothing short of astonishing. And I am thrilled to be presenting their Boston debut. Wow!

You’re nodding to Bernstein eight times by my count. Have you requested particular favorites?

We are calling our centennial celebration “In Boston, it’s Bernstein!”, which was the slogan of his father’s beauty supply business! Rather than a blowout concert or two, we are instead asking musicians across the season to include a work, large or small, of Bernstein’s, to give a sense of the breadth and beauty of his music. We will have a lot of works that audiences don’t know, from his 1937 Piano Trio, written when he was a Harvard student, to his 1988 Arias and Barcarolles, written two years before he died.

Eight of the concerts in the fall have announced Bernstein works on them. And there will be a surprise Bernstein work on at least one other, perhaps unlikely, concert in the fall.

And what has prompted double-booking Saturdays and Sundays for some concerts? 

A Far Cry and the Borromeo Quartet are two of our groups who have consistently sold out. So we are piloting a two-performance model for ’18-’19.

What do you have in mind for this year’s requiem for Isabella?

Performing spiritual music in the Courtyard has been one of our most successful new initiatives. The truth is that I haven’t picked a program for this spring’s nasturtium-time performance.

The world premiere of true pearl: an opera, in five tapestries by composer David Lang and librettist Sibyl Kempson will be the first (and only) live performance of the complete score, performed by Roomful of Teeth and Callithumpian Consort. True pearl is inspired by five of the museum’s spectacular tapestries. These five come from a 16th-century Flemish series that tells the story of King Cyrus of Persia. Following this live concert premiere performance, true pearl will be available to museum visitors as the creators intended: as an in-ear opera via headsets in the Tapestry Room, through January 13. If any single performance this season demonstrates your curatorial creds, it must be true pearl. Please expound on how this could only happen at the Gardner and only within your regime.

GS: What a flattering thing to say—I wish I could claim it were true. In fact, David and Sibyl’s beautiful and innovative work was the brainchild of Scott Nickrenz with Pieranna Cavalchini, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. But I am delighted you think it looks like my handiwork. It is, as you say, something that could happen only at the Gardner. And it is a great example of why I was so drawn to the role of curator of music here.

I suppose I can claim a tiny bit of credit for the idea, if only an iota. Back in 2002 or so, Scott asked me to bring some concerts from New York to. One of the first I brought was David Lang’s amazing piece so-called laws of nature [see review HERE].

That was, Scott tells me, his first encounter with David’s music, so I can claim to have made the introduction. When he and Pieranna dreamt up the brilliant idea of commissioning an opera as a part of our textile arts exhibition “Common Threads,” he thought of David. The idea David and Sibyl came up with is remarkable: an opera that can be heard only while standing in the Tapestry Room of the Gardner Museum. The five tapestries depicting the story of Cyrus the Great are the sole set, costumes, and cast. So when you say that it “could happen only at the Gardner,” you are touching the essence of the whole project.

Isabella created a Museum that has radical interdisciplinarity in its DNA. It is a place where marvels occur that could happen nowhere else: Renaissance polyphony in a Venetian courtyard on the Fenway; a world-class chamber music hall cheek-by-jowl with a gallery that hosts exhibitions of Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Elaine Reichek, and Lee Mingwei; and a textile exhibition that includes a commissioned “in-ear opera” (visitors will hear the music through headphones except in our one live concert performance in Calderwood Hall on October 4)—the actor and action of the opera are the viewers and the act of viewing. [More on “Common Threads” HERE.]

Your PR materials make ample use of the term “diversity.” Might “variety” be a better expression for music? Or will we soon have a genre “theme and diversity?” Divertissements imply light and minor matters.

Is it unflattering of me to say I haven’t read the PR materials? But I think the reference is to our initiative to be nonexclusive, i.e., to make sure that we are not excluding whole groups of artists from our concerts. I have asked all our performers to be conscious about not excluding, say, women composers or performers and composers of color. This, it seems to me, is one of the most pressing issues for classical music, and one that we all must address immediately. I hope that the results include both delightful divertissements as well as urgent and hortatory music. It is a season of beautiful variety. 

The official press release follows.

BOSTON (July 2018) – George Steel, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new Abrams Curator of Music, brings a fresh perspective to the Museum’s fall 2018 classical music season with exciting debuts and diverse lineups interspersed among returning audience favorites.

The season, opening Sept. 8, will celebrate auspicious Boston debuts by young artists such as Sphinx Virtuosi, a chamber ensemble comprising 18 of the nation’s top Black and Latino musicians; Sergey Malov performing on a rare violoncello da spalla; and renowned French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in a five-concert Bach Festival, among others, fulfilling Steel’s vision of bringing new voices and talent to the Gardner Museum’s longstanding and popular concert program.

The Gardner Museum’s resident chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, enters its ninth season in a 10-year residency. Their opening performance presents a Museum-commissioned world premiere by composer Jessica Meyer, featuring music written in response to the works in the Museum collection, as well as violinist Tal Murray as soloist in a movement from Leonard Bernstein’s violin Concerto Serenade.

In addition to Sphinx and A Far Cry, the fall season will showcase two more chamber orchestras, Boston’s own young and innovative ensemble Phoenix and the period-instrument Handel and Haydn Society.

The world premiere of “true pearl: an opera, in five tapestries” by composer David Lang and librettist Sibyl Kempson will be the first (and only) live performance of the complete score, performed by Roomful of Teeth and Callithumpian Consort. true pearl is inspired by five of the Museum’s spectacular tapestries. These five come from a 16th century Flemish series that tells the story of King Cyrus of Persia. Following this live concert premiere performance, true pearl will be available to Museum visitors as the creators intended: as an “in-ear” opera via headsets in the Tapestry Room through January 13, 2019.

Another highlight is the Museum’s Thursday-night pop, rock, and hip hop series, RISE, which will feature rising R&B superstar Bilal; Boston-based hip hop artists Oompa, Dutch ReBelle, and Res; and Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington

With the theme, ‘In Boston, It’s Bernstein,’ almost every concert throughout the 2018-2019 season will feature at least one of his works, large or small. Bernstein, a native of Roxbury, spent his formative years in Boston, and attended Boston Latin High School and Harvard University. The concerts will feature a wide selection of Bernstein’s repertoire, from favorites West Side Story, Candide and On the Town to his lesser-known yet masterful chamber and ensemble works.

Performing arts at the Museum are getting extra emphasis this year with a new Visiting Curator of Performing Arts Helga Davis, who begins July1, and Peter DiMuro, who is the Museum’s Choreographer-in-Residence, both of whom are planning new initiatives in dance and other art forms.

The Museum’s classical music concerts take place in the Museum’s Calderwood Hall on Saturday and Sunday afternoons starting September 8. The new opera will be performed on Thursday, Oct. 4, and RISE concerts will also be on Thursday nights in September and October. Tickets are now on sale to the public.

Here is the schedule:

A Far Cry with Tai Murray, violin

Saturday, September 8 at 3pm Sunday September 9 at 1:30pm

A Far Cry, the Museum’s adventurous self-conducted resident chamber ensemble, opens the fall concert season with musical selections inspired by other works of art. The program includes a Gardner-commissioned world premiere by Artist-in-Residence Jessica Meyer, written in response to works in the Gardner collection; and Leonard Bernstein’s “Agathon” from Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Ottorino Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych (in advance of the Museum’s winter Botticelli exhibition), and African-American composer William Grant Still’s Mother and Child.

Borromeo String Quartet

Saturday, September 15 at 3pm  Sunday, September 16 at 1:30pm

This first concert in a two-year cycle of Felix Mendelssohn’s six quartets features String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 and String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. The program also includes Leonard Bernstein’s Ilana the Dreamer, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1, Calvary, based on black spirituals. A major African-American conductor and composer, Perkinson collaborated with artists as diverse as Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Max Roach, Marvin Gaye and Harry Belafonte.

New York Festival of Song: Songs of Leonard Bernstein

Sunday, September 23 at 1:30pm

Songs from Leonard Bernstein’s hit Broadway shows anchor this program, which opens with his brilliant late song cycle, Arias and Barcarolles, performed by the pianist-founders of NYFOS, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett. Audiences will recognize selections from Bernstein’s beloved productions A West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town and more.

Bach Festival: Sergey Malov, violoncello da spalla

Sunday, September 30 at 1:30pm Boston Debut

The remarkable violoncello da spalla (a cello played “on the shoulder”) has been almost completely forgotten. J. S. Bach loved the instrument and wrote expressly for it—it may in fact be the instrument for which he wrote one or more of his cello suites. This Boston debut by the world’s greatest performer on this extraordinary instrument will change the way one hears this iconic music. Malov will perform Bach’s Cello Suites Nos. 2, 3, and 6 in the first of five Bach Festival concerts.

Sphinx Virtuosi

Sunday, October 7 at 1:30pm Boston Debut

Sphinx Virtuosi, one of America’s finest chamber orchestras, comprises eighteen of the nation’s top Black and Latino classical soloists. This superb ensemble makes its long-awaited Boston debut with a program of music from around the world. Musical selections include Yasushi Akutagawa’s Triptyque for String Orchestra, Miguel de Águila’s Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), Op. 76, Terence Blanchard’s 2018 Concerto for SV, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, Kareem Roustom’s “Dabke” from A Voice Exclaiming, and Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story.


With special guest Paula Robison, flute

Sunday, October 14 at 1:30pm
Gardner Museum Debut

One of Boston’s most exciting new ensembles, Phoenix makes its Gardner debut in an all-American program that includes the original version of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Leonard Bernstein’s flute concerto Halil with special guest Paula Robison, Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea, Tania León’s Indígena, and George Walker’s Lyric for Strings.

Bach Festival: Paavali Jumppanen, piano

Sunday, October 21 at 1:30pm
J.S. Bach, The Art of Fugue

Bach Festival: Corey Cerovsek, violin

Sunday, October 28 at 1:30pm

All-Bach program

Bach Festival: Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello

Boston Solo Recital Debut

Sunday, November 4 at 1:30pm
J.S. Bach, Cello Suites Nos. 1, 4, and 5

Boston Children’s Chorus

Saturday, November 10 at 1:30pm
Story of Her

Tales passed down throughout the ages are told, more often than not, from the male perspective. In this concert inaugurating two seasons dedicated to honoring women through song, Boston Children’s Chorus explores history through a woman’s eyes.

Claremont Trio

Sunday, November 11 at 1:30pm

The dazzling Claremont Trio returns to Calderwood Hall with Queen of Hearts, a new work written for them by Kati Agócs, professor of composition at New England Conservatory of Music; Bernstein’s 1937 Piano Trio, one of his earliest works, written and premiered at Harvard when he was 19 during his formative years as an undergraduate; and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Archduke Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97.

Musicians from Marlboro

Sunday, November 18 at 1:30pm

The Musicians from Marlboro return to perform Leonard Bernstein’s Four Anniversaries, Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 and Antonin Dvořák’s Miniatures, Op. 75a and Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65.

A Far Cry

Saturday, December 1 at 3pm Sunday, December 2 at 1:30pm

The Gardner’s resident orchestra performs Leonard Bernstein’s “Benediction” from Concerto for Orchestra, Paul Moravec’s Morph, Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27, and Jessie Montgomery’s Source Code.

Bach Festival: Handel and Haydn Society

Sunday, December 9 at 1:30pm
Complete Brandenburg Concerti

A favorite of Gardner audiences, the Handel Haydn Society performs the complete Brandenburg Concerti on period instruments.

Often sold-out events, the Weekend Concert Series takes place in the Museum’s Calderwood Hall, located at 25 Evans Way, Boston, Mass. Tickets are required, which may be purchased in advance or at the door, and include Museum admission. Ticket prices for the Weekend Concert Series are:

Adults $36, seniors $33, members $24, students & children 7–17 $15 (children under 7 not admitted).

Adults $31, seniors $28, members $19, students & children 7–17 $15 (children under 7 not admitted).


Roomful of Teeth

Callithumpian Consort

true pearl: an opera in five tapestries World Premiere

Thursday, October 4 at 7pm
Music by David Lang
Libretto by Sibyl Kempson
Stephen Drury, conductor

true pearl is an opera made specifically to be seen and heard in the Tapestry Room of the Gardner Museum. The opera is in five scenes—one for each tapestry in the Gardner’s spectacular 16th-century Flemish series based on the life of King Cyrus of Persia—and each tapestry serves as set and scenery for the opera. true pearl is not meant to be performed live, but is recorded on special headsets, so that museum patrons can listen individually, as they move from tapestry to tapestry, from scene to scene. This concert will be the first (and only) live performance of the complete score. It will then be available to visitors as an “in-ear” opera in the Tapestry Room from Thursday, October 4 to Sunday, January 13, 2019.

Tickets are required and include Museum admission; adults $27, seniors $24, members $17, students and children 7-17 $15.

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