Across 110th Street

The performing arts season in New York City perpetually overflows with abundance. From September through May there is not just something for almost everyone each night (early music is still thinly represented), but multiple somethings for everyone. How to choose which play, which musical, which dance performance, which jazz gig and set, which opera, which orchestra, which chamber music concert? For audiences with a love for but non-professional knowledge of genres and styles, a subscription is a welcome choice. Whether by theme, era, even night, one can buy a pre-programmed set of quality performances and skip some frustrating decision making and calendar wrangling. There are many fine subscription series to choose from, ranging from mini-festivals to explorations of toys in music, but this season the series which stands out as exceptionally fine from all the others is the Composers Portraits concerts presented by Miller Theater.

As the name indicates, these are concerts each of which is dedicated to the music of one single composer. It’s a programming concept that is actually at odds with the usual methods, which mix music of various composers and various eras into one concert. This concentrated focus is one of the draws of the series for the dedicated and the curious alike. A devotee of Iannis Xenakis, subject of the first concert in the series, this Saturday at 8PM, will be thrilled by an entire evening of the music, and a curious listener, seeking to experience more Xenakis will get a rewarding sample, without distractions from unrelated music. It’s a way of producing concerts that is attractive to non-classical audiences who are used to seeing performances of individual musicians and bands or buying CDs of the music from one particular source. It’s a draw that is simultaneously open, surprising and familiar.

Melissa Smey, the new Director of Miller Theater, sees the programming that way, and feels that it works. In a recent interview, she displays an infectious and exciting commitment to modern and contemporary classical music and a refreshing sense of optimism that the music will be attractive to a broad range of listeners. The Portraits series took shape under the previous Director, George Steele (now at City Opera), and this season’s program was mostly assembled by Steele, with Smey adding the concert and residency of Helmut Lachenmann. But the new Director is as committed to the presentation of the best music being made. She is already soliciting suggestions for Portraits concerts in coming seasons, and is seeking the right balance between audience interest and musical rigor.

Smey points out that by focussing on single composers in each concert, it’s possible to program more complex or larger-scaled works that aren’t usually heard in concert; the production resources are committed to the Portrait as a whole, the ambition is built in. “It’s about the composer, front and center” she says, “my sense is that’s a pretty unique approach.” It’s the difference between selling the soloist or the ensemble and the works themselves and the result is that rather than presenting musicians and the music they play, the concerts present composers and a sampling of their body of work. It’s a different idea of making a program and building a series, one that’s radically simple and profoundly ambitious.

This sense of ambition comes from the chosen composers, ones who have distinctive individual voices, the highest degree of technical accomplishment and are uncompromisingly aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually expressive. They have important things to say, important questions to ask. The overall programming is resolutely non-dogmatic as well and these qualities make the series as exciting and invigoratingly challenging beyond anything on the concert scene this season. Through the Composers Portraits, Miller Theater presents itself as a unique quantity, something known for a rigorous and well-judged sense of exploration and surprise, for presenting music played with complete artistic dedication, and for being able to deliver the unexpected. Those who are attracted to the stellar line-up of music by Xenakis, Lachenmann, Saariaho and Currier will be satisfied, and those who are curious, interested listeners will at least find their curiosity satisfied; whether or not they are personally attracted to the music, they will feel that they have heard the best examples of it. That is an important achievement.

SInce the programming is based around post-World War II music, there’s also tremendous variety built in. That period provided an extraordinary fragmentation of the musical tradition which is still with us today. It was a welcome development, giving audiences an astonishing breadth of variety of ideas and methods and an artistic commitment to express them to the highest degree of ability. The series has been going strong for over ten years and is still building a list of composers yet to be presented. There are surprises even for aficionados; the concert of November 7 is dedicated to the thrillingly powerful music of Galina Ustvolskaya who’s work is rarely heard, as well as an orchestrated version of Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.” This is different than the trio version Reed has been touring with recently, it’s a version for an amplified sixteen piece ensemble created by saxophonist Ulrich Krieger. It’s a fascinating wild card, a piece of music which, originally, has enough cultural baggage to confuse the musical quality, but transformed in a way that presents the composer’s ideas, for good or ill. It fits; the concentration on a single composer, an individual and outlying work and an appeal to the committed, the curious and the puzzled alike. Smey is also interested in bring the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble to Miller, which she feels is the ideal venue for the group; experimental, improvised, cutting-edge, non-jazz and non-classical and centered around a single individual’s musical ideas, it’s the kind of concentrated, unique and surprising music that the Composers Portrait series specialized in.

This balance of the known and the unexpected is unique on the New York City performance scene. Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall present ideas about the history of the mainstream tradition of the high Western performing arts, BAM and St. Annes Warehouse offer works that are parallel to that axis, but are still within the safe confines of established traditions; they rarely surprise, and even less frequently provoke, shock or upset. They work with the necessary evils of selling more than just tickets; with their galas, gift shops and cafés, they are selling are more complex blend of experience and social status, which they have to do. Although she is interested in developing internet broadcasting and streaming audio on their website, Miller Theater itself is refreshingly no-frills; just a theater literally steps from the 116th Street subway station. One goes in, presents a ticket, sits down and prepares to be surprised.

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