Insider Interview with Ted Altschuler, Director of the Baruch Performing Arts Center
What’s the process for programming a season at BPAC? How do you develop a theme or unifying concept?
We feature New York as well as international artists, presenting a season that is diverse in artistic genre, national origin of the art and artist, and subject matter. We present only artists whose work I have experienced live. I am particularly interested in a confluence of genres – whether that means multiple arts disciplines, arts and humanities, or arts and sciences. We emphasize programs combining arts and social justice. As a venue located at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, we echo the university’s ethos of inclusion and accessibility. Our students come from over 100 different countries! I don’t tend to decide on a more specific theme beforehand, but as the season takes shape, one emerges. The 2019-20 tagline is: Imagination. Depth. Diversity.
You have a doctorate in neuroscience and decades of experience as an opera and theatre director. How does your unusual background inform your programming decisions?
I spent many years directing plays and opera and teaching at The Juilliard School because I am interested in the creative process. When I really connect with artists, it is most often about artistic practice and values. There are easily 50 cellists whose playing might be thought of as excellent. I’m interested in what values they bring to the work, the extended narrative of their work over time, what composers they are drawn to, how they connect with the music, fellow artists and audience, does their practice include intense collaboration, site-specific work, do they improvise, do they compose – how they achieve the qualities we see in the finished product? As someone who makes work, I am intensely aware of the creative and practical resources required. At BPAC, we don’t just “book” artists, we host residencies for choreographers, composers, playwrights and other artists, providing time and space to make work. This helps cushion the financial risk, and since the creation of the work is happening here, creative process can be another point of entry for BPAC patrons and Baruch students. While some people love the performance, others get into what goes on behind the scenes.
I got interested in neuroscience via my work with performers. Cognitive neuroscience looks at the physiological sources of our emotions and behaviours - how we pay attention, remember, use our senses – these are processes we all engage in, but actors consciously exploit them. My experimental studies looked at what the brain contributes to the information that our eyes collect from our world to produce the experience of seeing - something that is really a creative act.
Science, like art, observes the world, playing with something in it to understand it better. Cognitive science has made me keenly observant of human behaviour; it has given me a rigor in how I direct an artistic organization and, has made me a better story teller. The data that results from an experiment is really not of value until it is embedded in narrative. It is story that attaches outcomes to what is known so far and says why they are significant.
How do you discover the artists that you consider for a season? How do you get to know these performers if you have not already experienced their work?
I’m a voracious consumer of live performing arts. It’s my pleasure, as well as my job. Living in New York City certainly doesn’t hurt, although I see performances pretty much anywhere I travel. As more arts patrons have gotten to know BPAC’s great 25th Street location - its intimately scaled concert hall with superb acoustics, its beautiful black box theatre - and as our programs have become generally more visible in the performing arts landscape, colleagues, artists, and artists’ managers have come to me with great frequency about their ideas for collaborations. I get to know artists’ work over time by experiencing it myself and talking to them. Then logistics like time and budget come into play and if that works for everyone, we have lift-off!
What kind of balance do you strive for, with regard to artists making their BPAC series debut vs. returning artists?
I hope that around 1/3 of our artists or artist pairings in any given year are new to BPAC. Sometimes they are completely new, for instance this year we will present Clarion and Daedalus Quartets for the first time, but we are also bringing back pianist Michael Brown. Instead of a solo recital, he will perform with his frequent collaborator, cellist Nicholas Canellakis. We have also invited back the fabulous modernist pianist Guy Livingston, he will perform with soprano Rayanne Dupuis who is well known internationally, but will make her New York debut at BPAC premiering songs by William Bolcom! I’m very excited that BPAC is the venue where New Yorkers can first hear his “Poèmes libres de droits” written for Guy and Rayanne.
New York is a world capital when it comes to the performing arts. What are the special aspects of BPAC that bring audiences to your events? What is unique about BPAC and its offerings?
What is unique about BPAC, and a real asset to New York when it comes to chamber music, is our Rosalyn and Irwin Engelman Recital Hall. At a capacity of 175 seats, it is truly a chamber setting in which to appreciate soloists and small ensembles. Its acoustics are among the best in the city.
BPAC prioritizes intimately scaled performances. This is the third year in which we will co-present Heartbeat Opera, whose aesthetic is intentionally scaled down – they are what off- Broadway is to Broadway. They take the grandiosity out of opera, leaving what is truly grand – focused story-telling, compelling characters, and an impeccably played and sung score that has been re-orchestrated so as to hear the music anew in a way that fits a 200-seat theatre.
There are some ways in which I’m pleased not to be unique. I would say that the quality of the artists we present are on par with the musicians you can and do hear at Alice Tully Hall or Jazz at Lincoln Center, the dancers you see at the Joyce, the performances that you see at New York Theater Workshop or the Metropolitan Museum.
We are in a great neighbourhood - 25th Street between 3rd & Lexington Aves borders Gramercy, Kips Bay and No Mad – the area now known as Flatiron, due to its proximity to the Flatiron building on 23rd & 5th. There are so many good places to eat nearby – Eataly, the Freehand Hotel, all the fantastic Indian spots in Curry Hill. Madison Square Park is a lovely urban refuge just two blocks away on Madison and 25th.
Last, but certainly not least, in this pricey cultural capital, we have affordable tickets. For every event in our season, there are tickets available for $35 and often for less, and student tickets for $15 and sometimes less.
What programs on the ‘19-20 season stand out for you as highlights?
I’m not supposed to play favorites, but in each program genres I’ll draw your attention to:
Terra Firma – WORLD PREMIERE - Sep 27 – Nov 10.
In a Brechtian future, a tiny kingdom is created. This play wrestles with what makes a citizen, a country and a civilization. Inspired by real events in which an army major claimed an abandoned concrete platform in international waters as his own sovereign nation. Featuring Andrus Nichols (Sense & Sensibility) “I’m beginning to think she can do anything.” – Ben Brantley, NY Times.
This “exceptionally refined young ensemble with a translucent sound.” – The New Yorker makes a sonic exploration of the response to repression and exile. The program includes the defiantly joyful third string quartet of Viktor Ullman, written in Theresienstadt in 1943. The NY Premiere of Babel by Gabriel Bolaños, whose family fled Nicaragua. The piece uses the sound of string instruments to explore the variety of human language, revealing both cultural differences and our fundamental similarity. Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s monumental piano quintet, composed in Moscow after his escape from the Nazi invasion of Poland, closes the program in celebration of his centenary
dwb (driving while black) NY PREMIERE - March 19 – 21
“Singers are storytellers,” says soprano/librettist Roberta Gumbel (“silver voiced…” – The New York Times), “but rarely do we get the opportunity to help create the stories we are telling.” Collaborating with Susan Kander (“A composer of vivid imagination and skill.” – Fanfare) and the cutting-edge cello/percussion duo New Morse Code, this brief, powerful music-drama documents the all-too-familiar story of an African-American parent whose “beautiful brown boy” approaches driving age as, what should be a celebration of independence and maturity is fraught with the anxiety of “driving while black.”
Foray WORLD PREMIERE - March 26 – 28
The first evening-length solo concert in five years by this very-in-demand Lincoln Center Institute choreographer. Set to an array of classical/contemporary music remixes, this marks the debut of D2D/T, Mr. Latif’s artist collective. They present four original works made with collaborators from New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey, and American Ballet Theater.
Talea Ensemble – Love and Diversity US PREMIERE - April 2 - 4
Lying somewhere between music and theater, this work is by Manos Tsangaris, never before seen in the U.S. The audience begins in a social setting filling out a questionnaire about, art, love, and friendship. They enter the performance in small groups, visiting several stations. At each sits a musician/actor. In a sequence of interactions, the audience is immersed in the performance – first encountering each musician individually and, finally, experiencing the piece as a whole. This exemplifies Talea's mission to champion musical creativity and cultivate curious listeners and is why they are hailed “A crucial part of the New York cultural ecosphere”- New York Times.