Some of George Steel’s earliest music-making encounters came when he was a choirboy at Washington’s National Cathedral. While this isn’t an uncommon start for future classical musicians, Steel’s experience was unusual in that during the entire time he sang there, the cathedral was under construction. He spent hours exploring its spatial and structural details, top to bottom. The cathedral thus became for him more than a place to sing; it was a site where different art forms — architecture, various visual arts, music — came together and coexisted.
“My friends and co-workers were stonemasons and sculptors and carvers, stained-glass window-makers and gardeners,” Steel said recently by telephone from northern Michigan, where he was vacationing with his family. “I’ve been a musician all my life, and I’ve been happiest when I’ve found a way to make music and bring music to audiences in interdisciplinary contexts.”
Steel’s passion for connecting the arts through music forms a thread through his artistic career, especially during his 11-year tenure as executive director of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, which he made a focal point of new music, and where he established a reputation as a creator of illuminating and imaginative concert programs. After a tumultuous few years as artistic director at the New York City Opera, Steel has now returned to those roots. In November, he was chosen to succeed Scott Nickrenz as Abrams curator of music at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. His tenure began on Jan. 1, and the first Gardner concert series under his direction opens on Sept. 8 and 9, with performances by its resident chamber orchestra, A Far Cry.
“I think it’s wonderful for audiences to see the arts brought together again, as they were by the artists themselves,” Steel said, “and the place in the country that I think is best positioned to make that case, and has multidisiciplinarity in its DNA, is the Gardner Museum.” Gardner herself, he said, was “an obsessive music fan” whose circle of friends and acquaintances numbered not only artists but the composers Gabriel Fauré and Charles Martin Loeffler.
“Her vision of the place included all those arts folded together,” Steel said. “And the more I look in the archives, the more I see how complete Isabella’s vision was and how radical and fun and beautiful it was.”
Steel, who before starting the new position had served as a visiting curator for performing arts, said that when Nickrenz retired most of the artists and many broad outlines for the concerts were already in place for the 2018-19 season. Steel took the opportunity to, as he put it, “open up the programs” by teasing out themes and working with musicians to create what he called “Gardner-y” programs, ones that would be particularly apt for the museum’s setting and serve his vision of interconnection among the arts. A prime example is A Far Cry’s opening program: a roster of pieces that are themselves about works of art, including a Botticelli-themed work by Respighi (a nod to a forthcoming exhibition of the artist’s work at the Gardner) and an unusual arrangement for strings of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
He also coaxed musicians into playing works of Leonard Bernstein wherever possible, for the museum’s “In Boston, It’s Bernstein” series. Bernstein’s works have been everywhere during this, his centennial year, but Steel sees this series as focusing on lesser-known pieces — such as his 1937 Piano Trio, which the Claremont Trio plays on Nov. 11 — and those with a Boston connection. “I’m trying to tell the story of Bernstein the composer rather than Bernstein the box-office gold,” he quipped.
But what Steel is most intent on bringing to his curation of Gardner concerts, this season and beyond, is what he calls “a spirit of non-exclusion.” It’s a curatorial approach that seeks to amplify the role of female, African-American, and Latino composers and performers. He’s particularly excited about bringing the Sphinx Virtuosi, a chamber orchestra of black and Latino musicians, for its Boston debut (Oct. 7). Where he could, he encouraged performers to include such works in their programs, such as the Borromeo String Quartet playing the First String Quartet by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, an African-American composer (Sept. 15-16).
That idea, “to make sure that we are not omitting huge groups of people in our programming,” is one that Steel thinks is long overdue.
“I try to tell performers, if you’re going to exclude a group of people from the concert, there has to be an incredibly good reason.” That can happen, of course, if you’re playing an all-Bach program, and the Gardner has a five-concert Bach festival this fall. “But when you’re playing a mixed recital, it’s pretty hard to defend.”
Since beginning his Gardner tenure, Steel, who has spent most of his career in New York, has been immersing himself in the local music scene — hearing concerts, getting to know his new colleagues. He makes clear, though, that it’s just the beginning of what he sees as a long-term project. “I’m learning more and more about Boston’s musical scene, but I think it would be hubristic, at least, to claim that I know it,” he said. “I expect that learning about music in Boston will be a lifetime endeavor. It’s not a crash course.”