For Met curator, performances are exhibits, too
In 2011, Limor Tomer, a curator and producer of avant-garde musical events in New York, took over the Concerts and Lectures series at the MetropolitanArt. For 41 seasons under her predecessor, Hilde Limondjian, the Met’s music offerings had focused on well-regarded soloists and chamber ensembles. Tomer came in with different ideas, gleaned from a career spent curating events everywhere from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Whitney to WNYC radio to experimental spaces in Lower Manhattan—not to mention a degree from Juilliard and a 10-year career as a solo pianist.
Working with an annual budget of about $3.9 million, Tomer, 53, produces 45 to 60 performances a year plus 30 to 60 lectures and talks. Much of the work she presents is original. “What I’ve found works for me as a curator is to start with the artists,” she says. At the Met, this means spending hours walking through the galleries and collections with a variety of performers and creators. This may result in a piece played on an instrument from the musical instruments collection, such as the work Glenn Kot che, the drummer fort he bandWil co, wrote for a 19th-century stone harmonicon. Or it may yield the video opera “La Celestina,” which the collaborative Erratica developed over more than three years for the Vélez Blanco Patio, engaging the sculptures as characters in a sophisticated sound-and-light show.
One coming large-scale collaboration is “The Colorado River Project,” a film with live accompaniment, with music by John Luther Adams, Glenn Kotche, William Brittelle and Shara Worden, featuring performances by Kotche, the cellist Jeffrey Ziegler and the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, exploring the ecology and history of the Colorado River Basin. The show will run in May 2016.
“My entire career was on the margin of the margin,” Tomer says. “Now I’m in a position to open the door. But not everyone’s ready to walk through.”
Tomer’s comments, from a conversation at the Met last month, have been condensed and edited.
My first question when I got here was, “Why does the Met need a concert series ?” My conclusion was there is an opportunity here, and the only thing we have to be is the Met. Then I started to try to figure out what that meant.
I don’t have a series that I have to fill, like boxes to check. I don’t have to fill this series of eight chamber music concerts and one newmusic concert. More and more, we work with artists to put performances into galleries that behave like exhibitions, not like concerts. It’s not even about “You have to let people know that it’s going to be at 8 o’clock on Tuesday, and you have to give them enough time to buy the ticket.” It’s just going to be up, and you will come during this six-week period.
In the summer, with “The Return” [by the director and designer Reid Farrington], we did a theater piece that was in 26 episodes, each episode was 46 minutes, and it would run during museum hours all day. We had three pairs of performers. At any given moment, one pair was performing, the female was the docent and the male was playing Adam; one pair was running the technology for the pair that was performing; and one pair was resting .[“The Return” centered on Tullio Lombardo’s sculpture of Adam; in the work, the statue comes to life on a computer screen and talks to the do cent and the audience .]
The way this is different from performance art is more tactical than philosophical. It’s about production values and the level of the actors and the direction and the dramaturgy and the lighting and the sound, which is where a lot of museums, as they get into performance, just don’t have the built-in expertise.
[As an artist,] if you’re not flexible, it’s not going to work. The single biggest contributing factor to the success of [“The Return,”] which was unbelievably complex and fraught, is that [Farrington] knew when to put up a fuss and when not to. We needed to drill a hole in the floor of a Met gallery, to run cable to the back stage, and we actually got the Met to agree. [But] he had a vision of the six-foot screens being oriented a certain way, and they had to be oriented a different way. For 21/2 years, we thought it was going to look like this, and suddenly it’s not going to look like that. And he just got it, and he adjusted to what it was going to have to be. On the other hand, there were a couple of points when he dug his heels in, and now in hindsight I see how right he was. My advice to artists, if they ever ask, I say be nice and know when to dig in and when not to.
We’ re still doing a fair amount of what I would call straight classical music. It’s just in a completely different, specific Met context. Even when I’m working with the Chiara String Quartet [this year’s ensemble in residence], every program was belabored: Does it tie in with [anything ], andi fit ties in with nothing, how is it going to be different from the concert you’re going to give next season at [Alice] Tully [Hall]?
When I came, one of the spaces that was challenging was the balcony bar, which traditionally had sort of background classical music. So I installed the Ethel string quartet. And when they’re on tour, they curate, they bring people in. It’s every Friday and Saturday, 5 to 8, in the balcony bar, 52 weeks a year. And it is a program space. It’s not a restaurant with background music. This is not a concert hall, but it does not have to be degraded. It can have integrity.
Limor Tomer brings a variety of experiences in the avant-garde music world to her work as head of the Concerts and Lectures series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “My entire career was on the margin of the margin,” Tomer says. “Now I’m in a position to open the door.”