Symphony Space is known for presenting music marathons that are unforgettable for any culture vulture. May 15, the 12-hour “Wall to Wall Behind the Wall” will include world and U.S. premieres, along with rare works by world-renowned and emerging composers from the Soviet Union and Communist-era Eastern Europe. It’s the brainchild of Symphony Space’s associate artistic director Laura Kaminsky, who will become the institutions’ director July 1. We caught up with Kaminsky, who grew up on West 79th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues, to find out why Russia, why now.
Q: You’re known for tackling big, scary political themes. Do you think Symphony Space patrons are ready for that?
A: The way I think about this is that we chose to do “Wall to Wall Behind the Wall” to celebrate a great body of music. It’s not so much a political analysis as a cultural journey, and I think people are totally ready.
Q: Who do you think should be going to this? What kind of people will find this music appealing?
A: I think everybody will. There’s symphonic music, chamber music, solo music, there’s jazz music, there’s folk music. It’s a pretty broad spectrum and it’s all great stuff, so I think people who are curious and culture-loving are going to have a great time.
Q: Why Russia? Why Berlin? Why this now?
A: I was looking at histories of Wall to Walls. Most are by composer, but some are thematic. Last year we did “Wall to Wall Broadway.” It’s got to be something that I’m passionate about. I though about doing Shostakovich, but that’s not as interesting as his entire context, where he lived. I lived in Eastern Europe. “Wall to Wall Behind the Wall” stuck in my head. I thought I could make a great program out of this. I really had a sense of the wealth and richness of all of this music. I thought of all the music that I wanted New Yorkers to hear. It would be a 100-hour festival if we did all the pieces I want to play. It was my passion for the music and my desire for Symphony Space to look broadly at cultural differences—I thought this was a great way to do that.
Q: Why a marathon? Do you think it’s trying to take arts to a “competitive level,” or is it just less intimidating for people so they can come in and out and not feel strapped down?
A: I guess the history of Symphony Space is that we were founded with a Wall to Wall marathon. We’ve been doing this for 32 years. It’s absolutely not competitive. It’s a warm embrace of our community. It’s absolutely about community and the joy of sharing good music. Yes, I hope it is less intimidating.
Q: There’s a U.S. premiere of Shostakovich war songs included in the program. Can you explain why these haven’t made it here before?
A: One of my many finds last summer, as I was doing research, was an original manuscript written by Shostakovich in his original hand, in lavender ink. It was 20 songs that he had arranged for the soldiers on the front line. They were for voice, violin and cello, because they’re all portable. I asked for a copy and asked if it had been disseminated. I think this is the only score that exists in this county.
Q: What do you have in store for us next? Is there a new direction for Symphony Space that we should expect?
A: A commitment to new work, nurturing emerging artists, commissioning work—giving people the opportunity to express themselves. We want to make music and contemporary work in all disciplines—make all this new stuff accessible. We have pre-concert conversations, which are really great, and make the audience more familiar with the music.
Q: Are you hoping to make Symphony Space more of a destination with provocative programming, as other high-profile institutions have done recently?
A: Our program’s been thought of as being fairly provocative and current. I would like to be thought of as a place that inspires people’s curiosity. Yes, I want to invite people to participate and be part of an exciting cultural hub here.
Q: Jennifer Higdon won the Pulitzer for composition. It seems like a big, important year for female composers. As one yourself, do you have any advice for people starting down that path?
A: I was happy for Jennifer, we had a nice email exchange. [My advice would be] write regularly. Write honestly. Be open. Hone your craft. Engage with ideas and engage with other musicians.
Q: I have a perception that classical music is very much an old-boys club. Is that true?
A: I’m not even sure how to answer that. I mean, the Vienna Philharmonic still doesn’t really have women in the orchestra. That was a big legal issue about 10 years ago because they barred women. But because they received state funding, they were told they had to have equal opportunity hiring. I think it’s less and less true, at least in this country. When you look at the larger classical music institutions, I think you see a much larger mix of personnel, both of men and women, and also an international array of artists.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a composer? Was that something you always thought of growing up?
A: I guess I started making up music in a formal, thoughtful way as about a 10- or 11-year-old. I didn’t know that I would do it as my primary passionate life endeavor until later. I wasn’t a music major in college, but I did go to graduate school for music. I went to the Music and Arts High School, which was one of the public schools, not LaGuardia. At that time, I was fortunate to be able to be exposed to some of those talented young musicians, most of whom I still know and work with. But I was writing music pretty furiously then.
Q: What was your major in college?
Q: Does that ever come into play in your work at all?
A: Every day.
Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. With additional reporting by Charlotte Eichna.