Edward Yim is one of the rare classical music executives who has worked on both sides of the fence, so to speak, as both arts administrator and artist manager. Currently serving as vice president of artistic planning for the New York Philharmonic, he has headed up artistic planning for the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York City Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall. During his tenure as an artist manager at IMG, he represented some of today’s most innovative conductors and composers, and he continues to work exclusively with composer John Adams.
We caught up with him in his hometown of Los Angeles to talk about his thoughts on the industry, planning for the New York Philharmonic’s 175th anniversary and his picks for must-see concerts around the globe.
21CM: You’ve had the enviable position of seeing the classical music business from a number of different angles. What do you find yourself thinking about now that was not an issue back when you started in the business?
Edward Yim: How we can instill a sense of flexibility, entrepreneurship and “adaptiveness” to large-scale organizations like the New York Philharmonic. I’ve always worked in larger organizations, but I’ve admired the nimbleness of smaller groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Ojai Festival, the Industry (an innovative opera company in Los Angeles), Beth Morrison Productions (a music theater group in New York) and the Gotham Chamber Opera. Smaller organizations that don’t have huge payrolls and large overheads and don’t need to fill huge halls have more flexibility. I envy that. But I also know that the platform of an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic is powerful, and the sheer virtuosity of our musicians is pretty hard to beat. So how do we combine the fleetness of a smaller organization with the incredible level of musicianship and imprimatur of a New York Philharmonic? We need to find a business model that both works and encourages artistic experimentation and progressiveness.
Twenty years ago, it was common to think about programming unfamiliar, experimental music by making sure it was paired with a blockbuster hit like Beethoven 5; now, that feels dated and naive. I don’t want to accept that when we put on a new work, it is a given that the audiences will be small. And I think there must be a way to encourage audiences to be adventurous, because I was not myself someone who grew up loving classical music. I was exposed to it, but it was not something I was immersed in. So the fact that I love to listen to Elliot Carter or John Adams or Timo Andres or Christopher Rouse was not a given. I had to be converted, and if I can be converted, I believe other people can be converted, too.
21CM: How has new music evolved for orchestras? What are you seeing in commissions?
Yim: I do love that there can be so many different kinds of contemporary music now. I have a real problem with stylistic ideology in artistic creation, by which I mean I think there is just as much value in something very modernist and complex as there is in something that is, perhaps, more obviously appealing and easy to listen to. It’s all about craft and originality and beauty, and those things come in many forms. I do see much more collaboration in commissioning. It’s rare for a piece not to have two or three partners now, and that was less so 10 to 20 years ago. It ensures that the piece gets multiple performances and that it can evolve and be heard by more than one community. I personally have become less and less concerned about “owning” a work. So what if we don’t get the world premiere? We get the prestige and honor of being part of the creation of a work and, frankly, the second or third time a piece gets performed can be better because you have longer with the scores, certain issues can be worked out, etc. And our audiences in New York are still hearing it for the first time and know that their orchestra was a part of its creation.
I really like the [Sound Investment programs] in places like L.A. Chamber Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the U.K., whereby audience members can buy “shares” in a commission and witness the creation process and really see a piece move from conception to realization. It invests the audience so much more in the act of commissioning.
21CM: It seems that in the past, artistic directors/chief conductors were able to keep an air of mystery and almost keep purposely at arm’s length from their audiences. How has the role of the artistic director changed?
Yim: Every chief conductor is different, and in someone like Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles and, in a different way, Alan Gilbert in New York, you have two models of conductors who connect to their cities and their communities in a meaningful way. Also, Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco. These musicians love not only their orchestras but also their cities and the uniqueness of them. However, there are some conductors who come in for 12 weeks, give electrifying performances and never really connect with their cities. But I think those are becoming fewer and fewer. I also think that what has changed the most is that we as culture lovers are looking to our artistic leaders not just to lead wonderful performances but also to be passionate advocates and cheerleaders for our art form. We need them to be missionaries for music, to make our art urgent, to make people excited about it. It’s not coming from the government, or our education system or our media. We have to fight the good fight and not just create great art but shout about it, too.
21CM: You are planning a big celebration for the New York Philharmonic’s 175th anniversary. No doubt the city of New York, including its history and its people, will play a role. What do you consider when undertaking an anniversary of this number, where, no doubt, there are high expectations?
Yim: We are in the early stages of making plans for this celebration, but one thing I know we all want is for the 175th anniversary season to go beyond self-congratulation. Reflection, yes, but not patting ourselves on the back for being the oldest U.S. orchestra and for all our past laurels. We want to engage the whole city in the celebration and celebrate the diversity and cultural vibrancy of our home. And we also want to take these ideas on our tours and residencies to represent the best of what New York and our country have to offer to the rest of the world. One theme lately in our organization is how an orchestra can be not only a virtuosic performing ensemble but also a resource for our community locally, nationally and internationally. I’m sure that theme will be a central part of our plans for the 2016-2017 season.
21CM: If you were a man of leisure and had 2015 to take off and go see and hear any artist/organization/group anywhere in the world, what are your top five destinations and events?
Yim: I’m lucky to live in New York, where so much of the world comes to show off its best work. Thomas Ades’ piece Totentanz was premiered in London last summer, and we are very fortunate at the NY Philharmonic to have the honor to present the US premiere of this incredible composer’s work. It will also be his NY Phil conducting debut. I’m also looking forward to Leif Ove Andsnes, one of my favorite pianists, bringing the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for a Beethoven piano concerto cycle. Back at my own orchestra, we will be presenting the great French dramatic oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake with French actress Marion Cotillard in the title role. These are truly “events” in the cultural season that can’t be missed. Last but not least, this coming summer, we have just announced that as part of a multi-year collaboration of presenting staged opera with Lincoln Center, George Benjamin’s celebrated opera Written on Skin will receive its US stage premiere as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. It’s incredible music and drama and features the extraordinary soprano Babara Hannigan among others.
One of my favorite places where I haven’t been able to go in a few years is the Aldeburgh Festival in the English countryside; it was Britten and Pears’ festival, and it’s both very traditional and very adventurous at the same time. Roger Wright, formerly of the BBC Proms and Radio 3, has just taken over as that festival’s chief executive, and I can’t wait to see what he cooks up. Finally, I really want to go to Dark Music Days in Iceland. There are some very interesting young composers coming from that country, and I’ve always wanted to go. And I think that the boundary between pop/rock music and classical music is blurrier there for some reason, and I’d love to explore all that more.