SALEM — Formally trained as a violist after salad days as a tennis-playing jazz fiddler on a farm in upstate New York, Scott Nickrenz, 78, has made a durable mark on American musical life through a series of prominent programming positions, including stints at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. This year sees his 25th season at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which recently ventured beyond its exemplary chamber-music offerings with RISE, a series devoted to pop, rock, and hip-hop.
Meanwhile, Matthew Aucoin (son of Globe theater critic Don Aucoin), 25, is best known as a prodigious composer, conductor, and pianist; as composer-in-residence at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, he creates thematic concerts rich in narrative and context. Introduced recently at a Salem cafe, they compared notes on presenting music in museums.
Q. Scott, you’re celebrating 25 years, no mean achievement. How did you start?
Nickrenz: I started as an impresario in Chicago, always playing viola, and I created festivals. What I noticed in this pathway, before the 25 years at the [Gardner], I found that I really wanted and insisted on helping younger artists. I was not remotely interested in promoting myself, and I wasn’t that interested in famous people a little bit older than me. Even now I look behind me, and absolutely everything I’m doing is helping young people.
Pretty much everything I do, I’ll do series of threes, series of fives — I work in that type of formula, because I can’t shotgun a million concerts, which I do, and make any sense at all. I have a whole bunch of things coming up in threes. I wanted to do all of Britten’s string quartets; I don’t think they’re played enough, and I personally love them. So I got a pretty new quartet — I got ’em new, so they’d do what I say! [Laughs] — and I thought, Who would go perfectly with these three beautiful pieces? Then after much thought, I said, oh, it’s obvious: Mozart. It came to me that the big, fat, juicy Mozart quartets would work so beautifully with these Britten pieces.
Q. Are you always so hands-on with the repertoire played by the artists you engage?
Nickrenz: No, I do one-offs. But I can only do so many.
Aucoin: When you sense a connection, like between Britten and Mozart, do you say, “Hey, you’re already playing the Britten — do you see this connection?”
Nickrenz: No, I just tell ’em to do it. [Laughs]
Aucoin: What was that connection, for you?
Nickrenz: You can’t describe it. I love the way [Britten] composed these pieces, and I’d never done them, really. There’s no describing what made me say, “This is absolutely the right [match], the big Mozart string quartets.” There’s no way I can describe that. And that’s a nice thing.
Q. Matt, how do you approach your engagement?
Aucoin: Some of the things we do are very . . . word-heavy, because part of the Peabody Essex gig is for me to geek out a little bit. When you’re doing performances in other settings, you rarely have the time to be a thinker, or to step back and share thoughts and feelings, and that is something I like to do. I don’t know if anybody cares about it, but for me, it’s part of the process, and PEM is open to that. My first concert there was by far the most extravagant. We did this crazy program called “Tracing a Line,” which involved tracing a single melody from the German Baroque through the Berg Violin Concerto to a new piece that I wrote. We did the Berg Violin Concerto in the round; if you picture a pizza, it was “slice of orchestra, slice of audience, slice of orchestra, slice of audience,” with the soloist in the middle. It was truly psychotic, and it was great fun. But as the program has evolved, I’ve realized that what sets this work apart from other kinds of events in my life is that it’s a space to reflect, and to play music, but also share the process of composing.
Q. What are some specific benefits of presenting music at a museum?
Nickrenz: I wanted to do something with absolutely no variety, and my museum allowed me to do that. The premise is to play pieces written by hand, scrupulously, that are at least 2½ to three hours long, and all basically pianissississimo.
Aucoin: Like Morton Feldman?
Nickrenz: Right. Then I really wanted to get the point across, so I had them repeat it four Mondays in a row. That’s insane, but I was sick of variety for a short time, so our museum allowed me to do it. They’re called “In-and-Out Concerts,” so you can walk in, you can walk out. The point is to have this music played live, not just to have a single recording be all there is.
Aucoin: The Feldman idea sounds totally inspired to me, because it resembles an exhibit; you can actually wander in and out the way you can other exhibits in a museum. This is kind of a bugbear for me, when people say, “Oh, contemporary music, why does it drive people away, but contemporary art doesn’t?” It’s a blessing and a curse, but more of a blessing, that music enters your body. When we play it, the particles actually go into your ears. If something is unpleasant, it’s much harder to avoid, because it's invasive — and it should be [smacks table], because then it has its impact. A piece of visual art that makes an equivalent kind of statement is much easier to appreciate passively; it’s easier to say, “That’s not very pleasant, but I guess I’ll just move on.”
Q. The time of engagement is optional.
Aucoin: It’s optional. It doesn’t force you to really engage. So playing in a museum has forced me to think a lot about the different ways that people engage. On the whole, though, the big benefit of working at PEM is that it’s been a creative playground. They have extraordinary resources, but they don’t have the aesthetic agenda or desire to control that certain musical organizations do. It’s not, “We want this length of piece and we want a big-name soloist, we want this and that and here’s the commission.” At PEM it’s “What do you want to make?”
Nickrenz: The gift of time.
Aucoin: The example I wanted to give is this accumulating notebook of pieces, which I call the “Celan Fragments,” pieces for violin and piano inspired by the poetry of Paul Celan. It’s probably my least-attractive music, ever, and it’s also the music that’s most important to me. They barely exist — and for me that feels very alive, because it’s at the very border of being totally silent. And if it weren’t for a place like PEM, I might not have the time and space to write them, because it wouldn’t necessarily fit in a big concert hall. Because of PEM, I’ve been able to keep adding to that bucket, and I think I’m going to keep adding to it forever.
There are, of course, cons. The acoustic is not always what you want it to be in these galleries. PEM has tons of galleries, and we’ve done concerts in a number of them: in the big atrium, in the East India Marine Hall, in the actual auditorium; we’ve done a kind of peripatetic concert with multiple galleries. And a couple of the acoustics have been deeply disappointing: tons of ambient noise, “we can’t turn off that air conditioner,” and so on.
Nickrenz: I’ve been trying to do concerts outside. But there’s so many permits, there’s so much [expletive] going on, it’s just so hard.
Q. Is proximity to precious artworks ever an issue?
Aucoin: It hasn’t really been. One of the reasons that I felt this was going to be a good relationship with PEM was that I felt we were totally on the same page about not ever doing a concert where it was like, “Here’s a painting from the 17th century; we’re going to play a piece from the 17th century — look at that!” It doesn’t go any deeper than that; you can hear the “clunk.”
We were more interested in finding spaces that were interesting to us: for example, the East India Marine Hall, which is this great room with tall windows that had been broken by cannons in the Revolutionary War, and there are all these crazy artifacts on the walls. It’s on the second floor, and it has a staircase, which is kind of hidden, that goes down to the first floor. We did our “Orpheus” program there, and we were able to have the Underworld be the gallery below, and to have the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo come up through this staircase and enter this strange sort of ballroom space. That’s the kind of interaction with the museum that we’re interested in, because the space invites it.
Interview was condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.