Musical programming in Boston will soon be receiving an infusion of new energy, as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has named the veteran New York impresario and conductor George Steel as the next Abrams Curator of Music. Steel succeeds Scott Nickrenz, who retired earlier this year after more than 25 years in that role.
In his new role, which officially begins Jan. 1, Steel will curate the Gardner’s flagship series, its Sunday afternoon chamber concerts, which take place in the museum’s Calderwood Hall. “The chance to lead the deservedly renowned Sunday music series is thrilling,” said Steel on Monday by telephone from New York.
He will also oversee the pop-accented Rise series, and will be developing new strands of programming designed to integrate music with dance, theater, and poetry, to take place in and among the museum’s galleries.
“Very few people that I’ve met in the field have George’s range of talent, both the deep experience and also the creativity and imagination to be able to program in so many different areas and to forge very substantial relationships with talent in all those different areas,” said Peggy Fogelman, the Gardner’s Norma Jean Calderwood director.
Widening the vision for music at the museum is an assignment Steel not only welcomes but also sees as appropriate for the Gardner’s own history. “Isabella Stewart Gardner had a truly universal vision of the arts,” Steel said. “The chance to expand the palette of performance at the Gardner, to claim the full spectrum of Isabella’s vision, is a very exciting prospect.”
The new position for Steel represents a return of sorts to the type of curatorial role through which he first earned a national reputation. From 1997 to 2008, Steel ran Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, a tenure during which he transformed the space into one of New York City’s most vibrant homes for new music. More broadly, under Steel’s watch, it also became a venue known for a type of imaginative programming that, at its best, seemed to narrow the often-yawning gap between classical music and the intellectual life of the culture at large. During this period, the Gardner Museum itself occasionally imported Steel-designed concerts to supplement its own chamber offerings.
After leaving the Miller Theatre, Steel took over as general manager and artistic director of the financially ailing New York City Opera, stepping into the center of the storm during one of the most tumultuous periods in the company’s storied history. His tenure at City Opera earned high marks for artistic innovation (including the New York stage premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place”) but none of it proved enough to overcome the company’s dire financial struggles. City Opera filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
Since March, Steel has been working as a visiting curator at the Gardner. Last spring, on Isabella Stewart Gardner’s birthday, he conducted his own group, the Vox Vocal Ensemble, in a performance of Frei Manuel Cardoso’s Requiem that took place in the museum’s courtyard against the backdrop of its hanging nasturtium. According to Steel, it was the first time 16th-century polyphony had been performed in that space.
Finding new ways of “activating” the museum’s multiple and varied spaces will be part of Steel’s mandate, he said. Even before his tenure officially begins, his approach to programming will be on view Nov. 30, when the Gardner presents “Picturing Women,” a literary-cabaret evening inspired by the museum’s current exhibition “Henry James and American Painting.” The program will pair readings of excerpts from James’s writing (including his correspondence with Isabella Stewart Gardner) with resonant songs by Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Dolly Parton, Benjamin Britten, Lili Boulanger, Kurt Weill, and Rufus Wainwright.
Steel is quick to state that no big changes are in store for the longstanding Sunday concert series (“it will continue from strength to strength,” he says). But beyond the series, museumgoers may begin to see music and other performing arts more widely integrated into the ongoing life of the museum.
“The range of the work at the Gardner is enormously wide, and I have a similarly wide-ranging interest in music and dance and theater,” Steel said. “And of all the institutions in the country, the Gardner is best positioned to figure out how performance can relate to the central curatorial mission of a museum.”Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.