New York Philharmonic
America’s oldest and most venerable orchestra could easily have rested on any number of high points in its celebrated history. However, under music director Alan Gilbert, the organization strove for new iconic moments by playing in venues across the city, working in new mediums, and finding new ways to tell stories about classical music.
As an associate in the Artistic Planning department, my job was to figure out how to make it all fit on stage, stay within budget, and start on time. After three seasons, I left with a wealth of experiences that gave me the confidence to blend artistic goals of the highest caliber with a healthy sense of adventure.
All photos in this section were taken by Chris Lee.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
I was the logistical lead for the New York Philharmonic’s staged and televised production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, which ultimately received two Emmy nominations. This glamorous production featured Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, with support from Stephanie Blythe, Jessie Mueller, and Jason Danieley. John Rando directed, with choreography by Warren Carlyle and music direction from Rob Fisher.
As with all of the New York Philharmonic’s forays into Broadway productions, the goal was to celebrate the musical score, rendered in rich detail by a full orchestra and top vocal talents. In Carousel’s case, dance was an equally important element to include,
given the huge ballet sequences in the score (designed around original dances by Agnes de Mille). Neither the stage layout nor the original production budget were well-suited to accommodate this element, but based on conversations with our creative team, I became a strong internal advocate to make it happen.
I negotiated the master production agreement to allow some casting flexibility and reworked the budget to accommodate Carlyle’s impactful interpretation of the dream sequence in Act II with star casting from two NYC Ballet principals, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. This carried the story’s emotional arc towards its conclusion and allowed us to showcase another artistic discipline its peak as part of the production.
Philharmonic 360 at the Armory
I was immediately intrigued by Music Director Alan Gilbert’s plan to mount an evening of “spatial” music at the enormous Park Avenue Armory on NYC’s Upper East Side. The centerpiece was a performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras that encircle the audience, with additional works by Gabrieli, Ives, Boulez and Mozart that all had multiple performance locations in their DNA.
I signed on as the project lead to support both Gilbert and the show’s stage director Michael Counts, and became the logistical clearinghouse for how 300 orchestra members, 50 vocalists, and 1500 audience members should navigate a custom venue designed by Fisher Dachs Associates. I scrutinized the scores and identified locations for clusters of musicians that worked for the configuration of the space. I even created large-scale maps akin to football diagrams (to the extent that I understand what a football diagram looks like) so that everyone involved could see how the show fit together.
During the production week, I was on site to solve myriad artistic issues that came from working in a 55,000 square foot drill hall, such as musical coordination with strained sight lines and delayed sound over vast distances. I brought in auxiliary conductors to provide reinforcement of the beat (kind of like radio repeater stations) for the opera singers running through the crowd during the selections from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The overall effect was unnervingly loose, but it illustrated Mozart’s original concept of a party with music coming from multiple rooms.
I had a lot of fun experimenting with Counts to flesh out the other narrative elements of the evening, including making use of the opera chorus to create atmosphere in the audience spaces, including a striking tableau vivant as guests entered the Armory venue. The whole project felt like a wild guessing game to see what might work in this unique setting, and while not every choice was an unalloyed success, I felt the project shattered a lot of audience expectations for an engaging evening.
Bringing New Music To Life
During my time at the NY Phil, there was a push to re-engage with contemporary music and living composers, and I happily accepted the task of managing most of our commissions and premieres, especially for the CONTACT! new music series in smaller venues across the city. Working with our notably mischievous Composer-In-Residence Magnus Lindberg was a highlight, and his projects invariably stretched the limits of what seemed possible in a concert hall (one of his famous works, Kraft, involves searching for “found instruments” in a local junkyard every time it’s performed).
I advocated internally for young composers we had hired, as many were undertaking their first commission from a major orchestra. I worked through instrumentation and logistical challenges for both new and old works, from sourcing appropriate toy instruments to flying in electronic music specialists from IRCAM in Paris. Discussions with the composers were built into each show, so it was an early opportunity for me to work with artists on novel ways to engage and inform an audience with unfamiliar music. It probably helped that we also served beer.
Launching Chinese New Year
In 2012, the NY Phil launched an ambitious partnership with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and conductor Long Yu that has blossomed into a multi-year residency and cultural exchange, and an orchestral academy in Shanghai. But in the beginning, the organization decided to wade into the waters with a gala celebration of the Chinese New Year. Nothing about the process of putting these programs together was easy, given the cultural differences and limited information available on Chinese musical specialists in disciplines like Beijing opera or instruments like guzheng.
I dove into the research to help the music library source materials, or build a US Visa case file for a Chinese operatic make-up artist. I loved figuring out how to bring two completely different musical languages together. A highlight was working with jazz legend Herbie Hancock on infusing a Chinese piano concerto with his own improvised passages, for instance. And incidentally, you haven’t lived until you’ve lobbed an exuberant dragon dance into the middle of a cocktail party full of New York’s well-heeled elite.