Wendy Richman on Curating

by Jacob Greenberg, ICE pianist and Director of Recordings and Digital Outreach

Wendy Richman smiling with viola.jpg

ICE violist Wendy Richman and I sat down for coffee in the West Village after she had finished her teaching day at NYU.  I was curious about her experience curating the OpenICE weekend at Abrons in September, and her thoughts on curatorship within and outside of ICE.

WENDY: Curatorship is a hot button word right now; people don’t like using it, or sort of make fun of it. Whenever I posted something about it on social media, I would say that “I’m helping organize” or “I’m helping program”—I was a little worried about some of the criticism I’ve seen surrounding that word. But what we think curatorship means is open to debate.  Sometimes I just see the artistic side of it, and in this case it was also a baffling amount of organization.  I enjoy doing it, but I wasn’t completely prepared for that side of things. 

JACOB: Over the years ICE has been defined by a self-programming aesthetic, and working closely with venues to bring what we do and what we’re known for to the table.  And of course every group should play what they’re most comfortable playing and the music that identifies them as an organization, but sometimes we don’t get to do that.  Partnering with a presenting institution often results in “arranged marriages” that can be beneficial in some ways, but are often difficult because of a rehearsal time crunch or for other reasons.

WENDY: And also because in some of those cases we haven’t known somebody’s aesthetic before, and rehearsals are always such a short spurt. If we already know somebody or their notation, it’s so much easier.  When I was thinking about both the general idea of programming for this OpenICE and also some of the specifics, I think Ross [Karre, ICE Co-Artistic Director] and Alice [Teyssier, Co-Director of OpenICE] had said, “Go back to people we have worked with before.”  We were using this as a retrospective, in a way.  One of the parts that was most exciting for me, in terms of a retrospective, was that this was basically the way ICE started.  When we did ICEfest Chicago, it was like “Here—I want to play this piece” and “so-and-so wants to play this piece” and “Let’s just throw these all together on a program, and do them at this loft in somebody’s house.”  And I loved that so much.  It was exhausting and it was difficult and we were staying on people’s couches…and we weren’t really getting paid…but we were so excited about the music we were playing. That’s of course not to say that the music that is programmed on our seasons isn’t exciting!—but it’s so different to work with a conductor who’s been assigned by a festival, and repertoire where we really have to come in nailing our parts. 

It’s a whole other experience to have a chamber music rehearsal at someone’s apartment, and have the luxury of it being a friend whom we’ve known for a long time, and music that either one of us had played before. I’m thinking about Katinka [Kleijn], with the Pintscher she and I did [Janusgesicht, a duo for viola and cello].  I had played it with another cellist—I think it was the first time I met Matthias, in 2006 at Lucerne—and this cellist friend and I were kind of un-busy at the festival. And somebody said, “Here’s this piece by this composer who is going to be in town conducting something, so you should just work on it and play for him.” And my friend and I decided to play this together, knowing nothing about Matthias or his music.  It was really hard!  And especially at the time, it was a style of notation that I was not as familiar with.  A year later, this cellist and I ended up playing it in New York, at Monkey Town, and we sort of threw it together last-minute.  So when I was thinking about OpenICE, selfishly trying to do things with Katinka because I wanted to play with her, and I looked through some old scores and found this, I thought, “well, this will be a totally different experience, both playing it with a different cellist and approaching it having played more of Matthias’s music now.”  I’ve worked with him as a conductor, and now I had a new copy of the part, so I was sort of seeing it with fresh eyes but knowing the aesthetic a little better, and then working on it with someone who was learning the piece for the first time but also has a good idea of what the composer might want.  It was really cool coming to it from a different vantage point. 

JACOB: What about the Lee Hyla piece, Ciao Manhattan, on the same program? 

WENDY: I clearly feel so sentimental about this piece, as you know. Will [McDaniel, ICE Executive Director] reminded me—I had totally forgotten—that Will and I had played it on an ICEfest concert at the Green Mill.  That concert was, I think, right after Lee had moved to Chicago, and I had already played the piece in Boston under Lee’s direction. It was the first piece of many that I got to collaborate on with him. And it was the same thing as with Matthias’s piece: I was going through my scores and found this piece, and I just…really, really wanted to do it again.  This was the first time I played Lee’s music since his passing a few years ago. I had played Ciao Manhattan so many times, and it felt and looked so easy to me. Then we had our first rehearsal, and it was pretty eye-opening for all of us and trickier than I remembered.  After the concert, we all said that we’d really like to do it again; I’ll hopefully have the opportunity to program another OpenICE concert, and feature the piece again, perhaps with some different pieces.

JACOB: Well, everything benefits from familiarity and time, and the more time you spend with a composer and their music, the more natural the music-making is.  For me, the free aspect of OpenICE is a big deal.  That the programming which is closest to us, and the relationships with composers and other performers that we’ve built over the years, that that is the music that we share in a free setting—it’s meaningful.  Did you think about that also?

WENDY: Absolutely, and I feel that we now have the opportunity financially, having these amazing grants that allow us to do these programs, of really doing this throwback ICE thing of having free concerts and being able to come full circle to everyone being able to throw out ideas for an ICE program.  Now we actually have a method of offering these to the community in New York and Chicago. 

And I think there’s something really special and different about each person having come with a repertoire idea, and having ownership of the pieces, and saying, “I’m playing this piece by my friend, and my friend happens to be this amazing composer who has done all these great things,” but actually the reason we’re doing it is because it’s someone who we’ve enjoyed working with, and for me, that’s primary.  And it’s primary when I am asking someone to write something—I really like the idea of knowing that I like this person as a human, and then I also really like their music.  For me, that was kind of what held the programming in September together, that it was interesting people coming from different backgrounds.  The second, the Saturday night concert, there were several people with backgrounds in rock and punk, and I think the diversity of that is also something that is really important to most of us in ICE.

Another thing—you and I were just saying a few minutes ago that we don’t get to play old music as much as contemporary music.  In choosing our composing and performing collaborators, we have the chance to also work with people who play in orchestras, and people who do opera and ballet.  There's something about working with composers who have come from really different backgrounds, including orchestral music.  There’s something about that that is really meaningful to me, and full.

JACOB: Yes, you want to go deep into what makes music meaningful for people.  And to have the programming reflect that, to begin an investigation.

WENDY:  Yes, the personal relationships with the composers, and also among players in the group.  I think it would also be great to integrate some pieces that are conducted, or that are bigger—we tried to have some larger pieces on these programs, but schedule-wise, it wasn’t going to work. 

JACOB: When the first call for piece proposals went out, we took a look at the instrumentation that was likely going to be available, and what was striking was that what result didn’t feel cobbled together at all, but rather these were just great options.  And the final shape of the programs felt very right.  I suggested a piece for violin and piano by Nils Vigeland, and that was completely embraced and included in the mix for that particular program.  Looking at all the pieces side by side, it feels just like a process of inquiry, addressed to each of the performers, about what makes this all worthwhile.  It’s like you posed the question, “What would you like to share?”  And the result relies on the intersections between all these different players who have known each other for so long, and how that creates a new experience each time.  We also imagine what someone who is completely new to the genre of new music might get from those programs. 

WENDY: Absolutely, and when you suggested that Vigeland piece, I listened to it, and that was like seeing a different side of you—it wasn’t music that I would have expected from you, and I loved that, and for [violinist] Josh Modney too.  You find out so much about people from what music they’re drawn to: we think we know each other, and we think that we can guess what those things would be, and it’s never exactly what you expect.  What you said about the program fitting together—I’m really happy you said that, because I really felt myself like they did cohere, and there was some discussion of it being more like a variety show, and I didn’t feel like that at all.  Audiences are smart.  There don’t have to be overly didactic programmatic connections to have something make sense.  We don’t have to hit someone over the head with, “Here is all stuff by punk rock people.”  Maybe those things will come up, and that’s fine, but since they’re hearing a lot of great music that goes in different directions, they can draw their own conclusions.  To me, that’s more interesting.

JACOB: Yes, and it’s impossible to anticipate the associations that people have with any one piece on the program, and the connections that they’ll discover.  Cool.