When George Steel left as executive director of Miller Theater in 2008 to head the Dallas Opera—he now is running New York City Opera—no one needed to look far for his replacement. Melissa Smey, the Miller’s general manager for eight years, became its new director, and she will continue programming the theater’s unusual mix of contemporary and baroque music, putting her own stamp on one of Manhattan’s most innovative venues.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time,” Smey said in a recent interview. “This is an amazing opportunity to build on the work I did with George, and also explore different ideas and take things in a new direction.”
Under Steel, Miller Theater focused on four thematic programs: composer portraits, Bach and the baroque, early music and jazz. Under Smey, those programs will remain—the new season was mapped out before Steel departed—along with a new wrinkle: a partnership with Columbia’s School of the Arts.
“We’re part of an Ivy League institution, so we can share that with the community,” Smey said. “We have this great faculty and students to tap into. We have so many opportunities to have campus partnerships—the composition faculty here is great, for example. No one has all of that but us.”
The new Miller season begins on Sept. 23 and 25 with “The Blue Rider in Performance,” a co-production with Works & Process at the Guggenheim, which opens a Vasily Kandinsky retrospective this month. This multi-media event is based on The Blue Rider Almanac, published in 1912, which featured art, music and writings by Kandinsky and other avant-garde artists. Smey says, “We’ve partnered for four seasons with Works & Process, and they conceived this program bringing together music and visuals from The Blue Rider Almanac, with the visuals inspired by Kandinsky’s paintings instead of being actual recreations. It’s an evening I’m looking forward to.”
Miller’s composer portraits, which have included Esa-Pekka Salonen, György Ligeti, Steve Reich and Frank Zappa, begin with Greek composer Iannis Xenakis on Oct. 17 and include an appearance by acclaimed Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho on Nov. 22. An evening of Lou Reed’s seminal Metal Machine Music—guitar feedback transcribed and arranged for classical instruments!—is scheduled for Feb. 5.
“What’s best about our ‘portraits’ format is that it’s an evening of music by a single composer that’s engaging for experienced listeners and those new to classical music,” Smey said. “It lowers the barrier to entry, I would say.”
Smey is already at work planning future seasons.
“I would love to expand our popular jazz series,” she said. “There are many other jazz artists I would like to develop an audience for, which takes time and patience, but also gives a broader focus to that program. And there are many composers we haven’t done portraits of. I can’t give anything away yet, but there certain composers celebrating milestone birthdays during the 2010-11 season, so we have some interesting names in the pipeline.”
Miller Theater opens its 2009-10 season with “The Blue Rider in Performance” on Sept. 23 and 25. Miller Theater is at 2960 Broadway at West 116th Street. Tickets, from $7 to $35, are available by calling 212-854-7799 or visiting millertheater.com.
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