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20 Years of Composer Portraits and 10 Years as Executive Director

Melissa Smey

This season marks the 20th anniversary of Composer Portraits and Melissa Smey's 10th anniversary as Miller Theatre’s Executive Director.

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this Q&A. 


Q. How did you begin planning for this special series of concerts?

A. With our opening night. Back in 2017-18, the JACK Quartet had included Anthony Braxton’s Composition 173 on their first Soundscape America program at Miller. It was incredible and we knew that Braxton’s 75th birthday was coming up. I wanted to hear them explore more of his work—and to celebrate him.

Then I went to my long wish list of composers, people who I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to feature on the series: Caroline Shaw, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for her Partita for Eight Voices; Vijay Iyer, who has already appeared on the jazz series three times; and Bright Sheng, a celebrated Columbia alumnus, who will then be in residence at the Curtis Institute of Music. I’ve wanted to work with Dai Fujikura because of his deep relationship with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Oscar Bettison because of Alarm Will Sound’s great enthusiasm for his music. We’ll also be marking another important milestone birthday this season: Annea Lockwood’s 80th. It’s going to be amazing.

Q. In other words, it’s business as usual?

A. Yes, well, thank you! We’re nearing our 200th portrait and we’re proud of the incredible composers we feature every year. But this anniversary season arguably features the most diverse group of them ever, especially when you consider them stylistically. And we decided to go bigger. One of the guiding principles behind the series has been to program pieces that are resource intensive and couldn’t be done elsewhere. Oscar Bettison’s Livre des Sauvages, for example, is a large, complex work that seemed like a stretch for us when I first considered it. We’re doing it. The same for Vijay Iyer’s violin concerto Trouble, which will be performed by Jennifer Koh with The Knights, the Brooklyn-based orchestral collective. We’re doing that, too, because we can invest in these works by offering the time and space for rehearsals.

Q. Looking back, what aspect of your work on Composer Portraits makes you the most proud?

A. We have now commissioned more than 60 new works in this series. This year, there will be three more: Vijay Iyer’s Song for Flint for violist Kyle Armbrust; Annea Lockwood’s Into the Vanishing Point for Yarn/Wire (co-commissioned with the New York State Council on the Arts); and Dai Fujikura’s yet to be named piece for ICE. Commissions are a central feature of the portraits—and we’re good at them. For me, it's about finding an organic connection between the creator of the music and the people who will perform it. There’s chemistry involved. When that’s working, the commission is going to be great. And it ensures that these creations will have a future because we’re fostering conditions in which new music can thrive.

This kind of collaboration is fundamental to how I approach my job, and I'm also incredibly proud of the relationships that we've built. Look at an ensemble like Alarm Will Sound. They had their very first performance here at Miller Theatre in 2001. The idea that we’re still working together after all of these years amazes me. We’ve been working with the International Contemporary Ensemble since the beginning. And Yarn/Wire. And JACK. To see how far they have taken this music and to have played even a small role in supporting their development has been very rewarding. It feels great.
 

"Commissions are a central feature of the portraits—and we’re good at them. For me, it's about finding an organic connection between the creator of the music and the people who will perform it." 

Q. When you prioritize collaboration and building relationships, does that also speaks to the importance of community?

100 percent. With these composers, these ensembles and their musicians, plus our audiences, we’ve helped to build and shape a new music community. That isn’t only about Miller Theatre. There is a bigger story here to tell. Think back and you’ll remember that Zankel Hall didn't exist 20 years ago. Alice Tully hadn't been renovated 20 years ago. There was no Poisson Rouge, no National Sawdust, or The Stone. You can trace the trajectory of the scene by looking at these spaces.

George Steel, who founded Composer Portraits, was a keen observer of the cultural landscape. He came to the conclusion that creating programs to feature a single composer was the best way to bring people together. In the orchestral world, you’d be lucky to hear something by a living composer once a season. And then they’d only devote a few hours to rehearsal: not enough time to develop a proficient reading, let alone a compelling interpretation. New music concerts tended towards ensemble showcases presenting the works of multiple composers, which can make it challenging to find compositions that fit well together and for audiences to find connections between the pieces.

Like a retrospective in the art world, a Composer Portrait offers the kind of snapshot that allows you to go deep into the composer’s sound world. You might decide that you don’t like it, but, after four or five pieces, you at least have a foundation on which to base your judgment. Even though there’s perennial handwringing about the death of classical music, it has not come to pass. There is such vibrancy in New York City’s new music scene today.
 

"Like a retrospective in the art world, a Composer Portrait offers the kind of snapshot that allows you to go deep into the composer’s sound world. You might decide that you don’t like it, but, after four or five pieces, you at least have a foundation on which to base your judgment." 

Q. And it is no longer strictly divided between “Uptown” academic composers and “Downtown” composers.

A. I don’t think we even need to say anything about that anymore. Or about the “jazz composers” appearing on the series, like Anthony Braxton and Vijay Iyer. I’m over it. The works speak for themselves.

Q. Can you explain why musicians and audiences find this community so compelling that they have returned here for 20 years?

A. Our audiences are intrepid. They’re wide open to new experiences. A particularly devoted group of people goes to everything. Deep friendships have been forged through attending concerts. Anyone who comes can sense that it’s a close-knit community. Everybody knows each other.

But beyond this, it feels possible to really understand who our composers are and where they’re coming from. When I took over the series, I decided to work only with living composers. They join us for an onstage discussion—we do it after the intermission, so the audience has had a chance to listen to some music first. We commission extensive program notes that draw on interviews. Hearing from the composer in his or her own words does so much to demystify the process. The music isn’t being performed for you at a remove. It’s not abstract or distant.
 

"Music is not for special occasions; everyone should have an opportunity to make it part of their daily life."

We have to get past the notion that people already need to know something to share in this. Music is not for special occasions; everyone should have an opportunity to make it part of their daily life. Concert going has always been about the communal experience of sitting in a room together to listen. It’s beautiful because you come together with a collective purpose that enables a very human connection. Putting creators front and center in public life is important in this way. Art matters. I’m so fortunate to be a part of it.