Features & Columns

The Commissioner

When Stanford wanted to turn its Lively Arts series into a front-line program, it hired Jenny Bilfield. She's made it her mission to bring great new works from important artists to the campus.
Jenny Bilfield San Jose Lively Arts 'THE GREATEST ARTS ADMINISTRATOR IN AMERICA': Composer Steve Reich praises Jenny Bilfield for doing what others have said can't be done.

MAKING artistic history is tough on the nerves. Ask anyone who's worked with Jenny Bilfield, the artistic and executive director of the Stanford Lively Arts program, and they'll tell you she's constantly generating new ideas—and has the willpower to make them happen.

This is a woman who, in less than four years, has transformed the university's arts program into a showcase for innovation, its schedules full of new works from top artists around the world.

Every time she gambles on commissioning a new work, as she has so often in the last three seasons, there's a moment on opening night at the university—after she's introduced what is often the world premiere of the piece—when she sits down in her seat, and all of that famous confidence dims with the lights.

"I feel my heart racing, and I'm definitely nervous," Bilfield says, "Because I know people are expecting a lot. With all the excitement that I feel, I'm very often wondering if they're going to feel that [same] excitement. I feel that sense of 'OK, prove to us that this is worth it.' And I feel the nerves of the performers putting it onstage. I'm thinking, 'This is a big risk. I want it to be meaningful enough that people want us to keep doing it.'"

Staying the Course

Steve Reich never has any such doubts. The 73-year-old minimalist pioneer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2009, accepted a commission from Stanford Lively Arts based on his 15-year working relationship with Bilfield.

"She probably the greatest arts administrator we have in America," Reich says.

That's no small praise coming from the man who himself has been called "America's greatest living composer." But he has plenty of reasons, both personal and professional, starting with his belief that he would never have even conceived the piece that won him the Pulitzer, Double Sextet, if it wasn't for Bilfield.

One day, Bilfield called Reich up and asked him if he would consider writing a composition for eighth blackbird, a contemporary-music ensemble featuring a flute, a clarinet, a cello, a violin, a piano and percussion. In other words, a combination absolutely nothing like the writing for multiples of identical instruments that Reich had been doing for 45 years. He told her, "Jenny, there's no way in the world I can write for a combination like that." And she told him, "Look, they're a great group; why don't you just sleep on it and let's talk about it tomorrow."

"No easy giver-upper, she," deadpans Reich.

Upon hanging up the phone, Reich thought back to his '60s pieces like Violin Phase, written for instruments being played live against recordings of themselves. He realized that he could do the same thing for eighth blackbird if the group would agree to pre-record a piece, then play a second sextet performance live against that recording—thus, Double Sextet. He called Bilfield back the next day and proposed the idea, and she took it to the group members, who said they would love to do it.

"And the piece won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is really one of the best pieces I've ever written," says Reich. "But I would never have thought in a million years to write for eighth blackbird. It was Jenny Bilfield, whose basic subtext is 'I'm not taking no for an answer.'"

She wouldn't be sidetracked when Reich's 70th birthday arrived in 2006. Knowing that Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Brooklyn Academy of Music would all want to do something to mark it, she called his music publisher at the time and proposed that these three behemoth arts organizations collaborate on a celebration of his music. Reich told her, "Dream on."

"But sure enough, that's exactly what happened," he says. "It was all Jenny's doing, and it was huge. I think it was the first time Carnegie Hall and Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center had all worked together. It all went fantastically. And it never, never would have happened if it wasn't for Jenny Bilfield."

So when she approached Reich about a Stanford Lively Arts commission for what would become Mallet Quartet, he didn't hesitate.

"She said, 'You need a young, exciting American group, obviously, and you know who they are.' I said, 'Yes, we both know who they are, they're So Percussion.' She said, 'I want to present the American premiere of that, and I want to have them out here to do a whole residency, and I want to do a whole program of your music, and not just the one piece.' I said 'Jenny, sounds like a good idea to me.'"

Mallet Quartet made its American debut in January at Stanford as part of a night that featured the Reich-inspired ensemble So Percussion performing six of his works. Reich himself attended and sat in on So Percussion's performance of his 1972 piece Clapping Music.

"It was a great concert," he says. "It was beautifully laid out, beautifully planned. Everything really felt great." Reich suspects he knows how his friend realizes her visions so often.

"She never comes on that way," he says. "You know what it is? She really loves the idea; she understands that it will make a great result. She knows that everybody will be happy, but they don't see it now, and she does. And she's right. In the long run, it's all for the good. It always makes something which is not forced and not artificial, and really artistically dynamite."

Spark of Being Frankenstein Myth FRANKENSTEIN'S DRIVE-IN: Filmmaker Bill Morrison, who works with manipulated archival film images like this one, has been collaborating with composer Dave Douglas on 'Spark of Being,' their take on the Frankenstein myth, a commissioned new work that debuts at Stanford April 24.

Growing Pains

Although Bilfield got her start in New York, she had a connection to Stanford from an early age. Her mother graduated from Stanford Business School when she was 2, and though she no longer knows if they're real or created after the fact, she has memories of looking up at the trees on Palm Drive.

Even growing up, she was fairly unstoppable. "In 1987, I started an orchestra, and everybody said, 'You can't start an orchestra, you're 22 years old,'" Bilfield recalls. "Don't tell me I can never do something. It's the match that lights the fire."

She says it with intense seriousness, but then her face lights up in a smile. After hearing so much about her persuasive power and sharp negotiating skills, perhaps the most disarming thing about the 45-year-old Bilfield is her genuine warmth. Reich is right: it's sincerity and conviction, rather than blunt force, that fuel her success.

Bilfield did start her orchestra, and before long, she was executive director of the National Orchestral Association, bringing world premieres to Carnegie Hall through the New Music Orchestral Project. She joined music publisher Boosey & Hawkes' New York office in 1994 and was president of the company by 2002.

Eventually, though, she tired of the purely profit-driven side of the business. Then one day, someone at Carnegie Hall told her about a potential job at Stanford that "could be a risky thing." What they were looking for, she was told, was someone to take a traditional presenting organization and transform it into an innovative environment.

Four years ago this month, she sent in her application letter and soon found herself doing a video interview, where she was fully up-front about her desire to bring as much new work as possible to the program.

"They had given me a whole list of questions in advance to consider, and they were the most interesting questions I'd ever been asked. Like 'What would you do if you had an opportunity to build a performing-arts center? What would be the core values, the scale of it, the most important elements in designing it?' I had nothing invested in it, so I just went 100 percent with what I thought the opportunities were: the opportunity to commission new works, present breakthrough artists, connect with Stanford's entrepreneurial risk-taking environment. Because that really is what this is."

If they were looking for a revolutionary candidate, they found her.

"I was a little bit off the beaten path," she says. "I have pretty strong opinions, but I'm also a really good listener. I've worked with some very complex challenges, and I've found opportunities for music and dance and for new works that nobody else would have found. Somebody could say, 'Oh, that could never happen. That would never be successful' And I would say, 'Really? Why not?' 'Well, it's just never been done before.' Aha."

That's the moment Bilfield will very likely start to figure out how it can be done. For her, creating exciting new work is a deep commitment. Besides bringing to Stanford an emphasis on the collaborative-arts-group model that worked in New York, which allows the financial burden to be spread around, Stanford Lively Arts allocates a much higher financial stake to new works than most other arts organizations, even other universities. Somewhere between 10 percent to 15 percent of the organization's $3 million operating budget will go to commissions next year.

Besides Reich, this Lively Arts season has also featured commissioned or co-commissioned works by Kronos Quartet (A Chinese Home), L.A. Theatre Works (RFK: The Journey to Justice) and the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Sundays With St. Lawrence). Two more such works are still to make their debuts: the world premiere of Dave Douglas and Bill Morrison's Spark of Being on April 24, and the U.S. premiere of Laurie Anderson's Delusion on May 5.

"It's not just raising the money for the commission fees, it's committing to having it as an institutional value, adapting the organization to really embrace new work," says Bilfield.

There have been growing pains—about three-quarters of the Lively Arts staff has turned over since Bilfield arrived. Drawing a staff suited to living on the edge with new work has been critical, she says.

"It's a challenge to promote it, to market it, to have confidence in talking about it. To say, 'This is what we're doing, this is a new commissioned work, and damn it, it's going to be so exciting, how could people not come?' It's about as uncomfortable a place as a conservative marketing director could be."

A 'HOME' FOR THE ARTS: Wu Man, famous for her mastery of the Chinese lute, joined Kronos Quartet for 'A Chinese Home,' which was co-commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts.

Spark of Being

Dave Douglas and Bill Morrison have their MacBooks open next to each other on a conference table in the "Knoll," a chateaulike building on a hill at Stanford that became the home for CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics) in 1986. One is a composer and trumpeter, the other is a filmmaker, and it would be impossible to confuse the two—Douglas sports a dapper casual-but-jacketed outfit that meets the requirements of both professionalism and hipness that musicians of his stature are expected to meet, while Morrison has the scruffier look of a documentarian. There are wires everywhere, and the two men look, if not exactly stressed, definitely intense.

Douglas and Morrison have met at the university to work on their epic collaborative project, three years in the making, that was commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts after Bilfield arrived.

"Jenny called me and said, 'What would you like to do that you couldn't do anywhere else?" remembers Douglas. "It's not every day that you get asked that question."

The basis of the piece is matching Morrison's talent for shaping films made from a collage of archival footage—his similarly constructed Decasia was named by the Village Voice as one of the 10 best films of 2003—with Douglas' composition work. It has gone by many different titles over time; for a while, it was known as Frankenstein: The First 100 Years, in reference to Thomas Edison's 1910 film.

"Before that, it was called The History of Gadgetry," Douglas says. "For us, it's all been about this conversation between technology and art, humanity and invention—what our inventions mean to us and how science has affected humanity. We went to Frankenstein because that seemed like a good metaphor for the whole thing. Bill works with older films, creating something new out of them, and I work a lot with samples and various disparate elements of music."

"The Frankenstein monster is a collage of pieces in and of itself, so we're referencing our process," says Morrison. Finally, though, they settled on Spark of Being.

"We realized we're not making a literal telling of the Frankenstein myth," says Douglas. "We're doing, in a way, a re-examination of the original novel and coming at that with all these other ideas about technology and society. 'Spark of being' is actually a phrase that comes from the Shelley text."

Their intensity derives no doubt in part from the fact that the piece makes its debut in less than two months.

"We started talking about this project a little over three years ago," says Douglas. "In terms of the process, where we're at now, it may seem crazy that we're just matching music to image, but it's all ideas that we've been throwing back and forth for the last two years. In my medium, it's a lot harder to share what I'm working on with him. If I've got music written in a notebook, it's really hard to give him a visceral sense of what it's going to sound like. And the same with him; because he works with archival footage, he couldn't really go and collect anything that early."

So initially, everything they planned for the project had to be in the abstract, until Douglas made some demos, and sent them to Morrison, who then found some images to match them and sent them back to Douglas, and so on.

Morrison says having a commission from Stanford Lively Arts has given them the time and the freedom to make the work what it needs to be.

"A lot of times, the timeline with these things is you come up with something you want to do, and then you wade through several grant cycles before you find the funding and, hopefully, the venue to do it. With this, that was all taken care of before we even really had a strong concept of what we wanted to do," he says. "We had a premiere date and a chunk of change to make it with. That was an enormous showing of faith by Stanford Lively Arts, to say we want you two artists, and we have faith in you to come up with something."

David Harrington, artistic director of the Kronos Quartet, felt another kind of support when his group was preparing A Chinese Home. Bilfield drove up to San Francisco to see an early rehearsal of the piece. The close attention she paid to the work's progress, and her respect for the group's artistic process, made the extremely detail-oriented Harrington push even harder.

"When she came to the rehearsal, we tried to have it as ready as possible," he says. "I wanted it to be important to her, and be as good as it could be. She's one of those people who raise the bar."

Balancing Act

That's exactly the kind of support Bilfield wants to create with the group's commissions. "That way, the artist can just get on with it," she says.

What it does for the university, at least in theory, is create prestige and buzz around big events from important artists. Over time, it has tapped into a new audience but also created some controversy, too, among longtime subscribers.

"We've attracted a lot of new supporters, audience subscribers; we've also lost some people who saw Lively Arts as a provider of a specific type of work," she says. "It's been instructive for me to find a balance, because although we do commission a lot of work, we also do present work that is well known. My first season I programmed significantly more new work, and the balance was off. This season the balance is better, and I think next season the balance is going to be right."

Bilfield admits that reining herself in is not always easy. "I need to have some of my extreme tendencies calibrated a little bit, because I am programming for a wide audience. It's not just Jenny's favorite stuff. That's where the listening comes in, people coming up and saying, 'You're neglecting part of your audience.' If they're not coming to what you're doing, they won't be there to support the new stuff."

Times are tough all around—the Lively Arts budget took a hit this year in the wave of cutbacks across the campus. But it seems her particular vision has found an outlet that can handle it.

"I love programming for this audience, because people in this area are so smart and so multidimensional," she says. "Whether it's the audiences that are affiliated with Stanford—students, faculty, staff, alumni—or people who are in the community, the intellectual candle power is extraordinary."

Because of her strong personality, she says, people on staff used to tiptoe around her a bit, trying to avoid getting her involved in the minutiae of technical details or scheduling nightmares. But over time, she convinced them it was best for her to know as much about everything as she could. Not only because she could solve problems, but because it kept her from getting in too deep on artistic proposals that sounded exciting but that Stanford facilities simply couldn't handle.

"I tend to be pretty transparently excited. I don't sit in a conversation and say, 'Oh that's very interesting, I'll get back to you,'" she says. "I say, 'That's very interesting; we have to figure out a way to do it.' The best way for me to check myself is to be more knowledgeable about the details. I have to be able to not raise everybody's expectations, but I want to be enthusiastic about the art as well. So the sooner I can get down to those details, the better."

Midwife to Art

In an bit of synchronicity, one of the questions Bilfield had to face in the abstract during her interview for the job became a reality: she talked her way into a new concert hall. One night, famed Stanford donor Peter Bing asked her the same question: How would she design it; would it be 1,200 seats or 900 seats? She told him her theory that a concert hall should have a stage big enough to fit an orchestra and seating small enough that the audience can see the whites of the performers' eyes. Even the people in the back row, she said, should feel connected to what's happening onstage.

"He had been thinking about supporting it. That night he pledged $50 million," she says. "That conversation with all of us clinched it."

The 844-seat Bing Concert Hall was approved by the university board last month and is set to be built by 2012–13.

Ironically, the woman who has made the creation of new work her priority at Stanford Lively Arts doesn't consider herself an artist.

"I think I have too much respect for what it means to be an artist, with a capital A, to say that I am one," she says. "On the other hand, I've been a composer and a pianist. I know what it's like to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper and think, 'Oh, my God, what do I have to say that expresses myself? Do I have the tools to do it, and does anyone want to hear it?' I sat there with my own sweaty palms, and then I married a composer, so I have his sweaty palms. And the sweaty palms of other people whose premieres I've attended.

"I'm more of a midwife than an artist. I'm a creative person, but this is my way to be creative."