ALAN PIERSON: Making Brooklyn's Orchestra
The biggest news about music in Brooklyn this year didn’t come out of Williamsburg, BAM, or the banks of the Gowanus Canal. The source was the offices of the moribund Brooklyn Philharmonic, which announced the appointment of Alan Pierson as its next artistic director. It was a classic case of an arts organization acting boldly, rather than just talking a good game.
Crippled by lack of money, the orchestra had cancelled its entire previous season. The painful question that raises is: Did anyone notice? Once an important group, especially for modern music, under the distinguished batons of Lukas Foss, Dennis Russell Davies, and Robert Spano, the orchestra saw its overall quality fall off drastically under music director Michael Christie. Christie developed stylish concert programs, but put less care into rehearsing and developing the ensemble—the music director’s primary responsibility.
As an organization, the Philharmonic never disappeared, continuing its “Off the Wall” chamber music series and its educational programs. Now, Pierson’s appointment has revived interest and excitement around the orchestra itself. Pierson is a talented and accomplished conductor, as leader of two of the foremost new music ensembles, Alarm Will Sound (he’s a founding member) and Dublin’s Crash Ensemble. He’s also one of the most innovative concert programmers around, consistently pairing great pieces of music in unexpected and smart ways. Concerts like Alarm Will Sound’s dazzling, provocative “1969,” heard at Zankel Hall in March, are closer to a Kronos Quartet performance: thematic and theatrical.
Pierson is bringing this to Brooklyn. His plan for his first season is unique: three series, each comprised of three components—an orchestra concert, a chamber performance, and a community event—presented in three different Brooklyn neighborhoods. Out in Brighton Beach, it’s music from Shostakovich and other Russian composers, accompanying Soviet-era cartoons; Downtown Brooklyn gets 19th century American music, new pieces from David T. Little and Sarah Kirkland Snider, and a movement from Sufjan Stevens’s The BQE.; and in Bed-Stuy, Mos Def joins the orchestra in arrangements of “Life in Marvelous Times” and other songs, along with a tribute to Lena Horne. Running through the season is the thread of Beethoven; separate movements of the Symphony No. 3, the first work the Philharmonic ever played, are on each orchestra program. The Philharmonic is also accepting remixes of the symphony’s final movement; the winning entry will be arranged by composer Andrew Norman for the Bed-Stuy concert. The New York Philharmonic received an ASCAP award for adventurous programming this year, and what Pierson is planning challenges that standard. I recently sat with him in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment to talk about the season.
George Grella (Rail): The first thing I want to ask you is, how did you get to this idea of doing the neighborhood programming—not just “We’re going to be in Brighton Beach, so we play Russian music,” but taking into account the neighborhood’s larger historical context?
Alan Pierson: And also neighborhood—like, really trying to connect with the people there.
Pierson: You know, the story is kind of amazing. I ran into one of the board members at a concert that I just happened to be at, who said, “Hey, we’re having this conversation about where to go with the Brooklyn Philharmonic; you might be interested.” And I thought, this is not something I was looking for, I wasn’t out trawling for an orchestra job. And I said, I think I’m interested in that, and I went home and thought about it. I knew where the orchestra was generally, and was thinking about what is a way to make a case that this orchestra is relevant and essential and just started thinking about all the—about what’s in Brooklyn, the different cultural threads in Brooklyn and the amazing artists that are just all over Brooklyn, and this seemed like the way to go. I met with them the next day and the board had, on their own, come to the same basic plan. So, it’s something that they were thinking about and that independently I thought made sense. It just seemed too clear, given what Brooklyn has to offer, that an orchestra that is going to be the orchestra of Brooklyn should reflect all that.
Rail: So your first thoughts about programming like this came before you were appointed artistic director? You actually started thinking about it in the abstract, if you had such an opportunity?
Rail: And then did your appointment to the Phil come out of that?
Pierson: It came out of that. They were beginning a process of trying to figure out, what’s the orchestra going to do? Where do we want to go? And they started talking with me as part of that conversation. This took place over the course of time but eventually led to the appointment. The board had this idea, they had a strategic plan and a vision statement that articulated it, but they were very much looking for someone who could take the reins and lead in this general direction, and they were very open to someone working with this idea of becoming Brooklyn’s orchestra. People were coming and saying, “Well, we gotta figure out what works,” and so there’s been a very open, very positive, fun process.
Rail: What’s the response when you present your programming ideas?
Pierson: Incredibly positive. I’m used to Alarm Will Sound, where we all—part of what’s great about it—debate programs together, so I’m used to—if I put a programming idea forward—I’m lucky if two-thirds of the people are gonna say, “That’s fantastic,” and a few will say, “Oh, whatever, I don’t really care,” and then a couple will say, “That’s a terrible idea.” The Brooklyn Phil, although it is a larger institution, it’s a very different process and I was really amazed by the level of openness to what I was putting on the table, and I have to say, while the focus right now is very much on this coming season, 2011–12, there are ideas that we’ve got brewing for 2012–13, and they’re really exciting. They’re definitely ideas I brought to the table that I was worried someone would say, “Is that too off-the-wall?” And I’ve been amazed at their willingness to explore what off-the-wall means.
Rail: How many music directors can say that?
Pierson: But I think that’s also because I have my ear to the ground. I’m trying to do things that are really exciting. I’m trying to do things that, because the approach is figuring out not just what’s exciting in my head, but also what’s gonna be exciting that will connect with people, so it’s an inherently human and connective process and I think that’s why people have been comfortable with the direction we’re looking in.
Rail: Where do you think the orchestra is right now? What’s the quality of the ensemble?
Pierson: I’m still getting to know them. One of the ways this is an unconventional process is that usually when you have an orchestra already up and running, they all have a relationship with the music director. And I really haven’t. I can answer your question by saying that I’ve been working with the orchestra in chamber concerts and it’s a nice experience to get to know players. Not as the guy on the podium, but rather in these smaller concerts where I’m not conducting but am there to help out. Those experiences have all been really positive.
Rail: You want to be Brooklyn’s orchestra. Are you finding out what that means?
Pierson: Yeah. That’s happening through the programming process. I’ve learned a lot through it. I expect we’re still learning; for example, in these communities we’ve tried to make as many relationships as we can. But there are a lot of great people, say in Bed-Stuy, that we haven’t connected with yet. My hope is that someone comes to the Bed-Stuy concert and says, “This gave me a great idea for something else the orchestra could do.” And that’s another conversation that we have and that leads to a concert that happens the following season or two years down the road. So I think definitely there’s a sense in which these first projects in these communities are the beginning of exploring the nature of the Brooklyn Phil’s relationship with them.
Rail: Are there are other places that you’d like to get into, whether it’s neighborhoods or some of the performing spaces that are in Brooklyn?
Pierson: Definitely, there’s a lot on the table and in my head. Not for 2011–12, but I have this massive document of ideas that have been coming in. We really want to do something connected to the West Indies community. We’d really like to do something that connects with Muslim communities and that’s something we’ve been exploring. We really wanted something for Prospect Park, and I had a big idea for a concert there that was ready to go but we decided it’s too expensive for year one. So we’ll put that off until year two. We really want to go back to BAM. I know the orchestra players miss it terribly.
Rail: How would you describe what makes the Brooklyn Phil different from other New York orchestras?
Pierson: It’s the idea of really trying to connect with the communities in an interesting way. I don’t know any other orchestra that’s done that in the way that we are doing and with the intensity of focus that we have. In most orchestras, community concerts and pops concerts occupy a second tier. Part of what I’m trying to do is make community concerts first-tier, and—not pops concerts—have them approaching the level of integrity and artistic seriousness that most orchestras reserve for their subscription season.
GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.