EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH SYMPHONY SPACE CO-FOUNDER AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR ISAIAH SHEFFER. (JOANNE COSSA, AT THE TIME the MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SYMPHONY SPACE, WAS also present.)
Date around 2000 - interviewer unknown.
This material was sent to me by Ethel Sheffer. Ethel read excerpts at the January 7th celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first WALL TO WALL BACH on January 7th, 1978—a free, twelve-hour event which gave birth to Symphony Space. I have made a few additions from exchanges with Isaiah that I have kept over the years.
Isaiah and I served as co-Artistic Directors of Symphony Space for 10 years, following which Isaiah became sole Artistic Director until shortly before his death in 2012.
- Allan Miller
Interviewer: Symphony Space is a nationally recognized cultural institution, now almost a quarter of a century old, which is launching new program initiatives in spring 2001 and opening an expanded and improved facility in spring 2002. All this began as a one-shot, with a single, legendary event. How did it happen?
Isaiah Sheffer: One evening in late 1977, Allan Miller came across the hall in our apartment building on Riverside Drive and said he was doing some programs in venues away from Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra. At the time he was the orchestra’s conductor for special programs, and in that capacity he’d decided to do an event on the Upper West Side. The question was, where? My wife Ethel Sheffer, an urban planner who was active in Upper West Side politics, said, “Why not the old Symphony movie theater? We’ve just been picketing the liquor store next door, which has been selling to inebriates, and our line passed right in front of the marquee.”
So Allan and I went to peer through the doors, and there was a slip of paper with the name of a man who had been renting out this shabby, defunct movie theater. We took it for one day, January 7, 1978, for an event called Wall to Wall Bach: a day-long, free community concert, where you could bring your fiddle and play alongside the professionals, or bring your voice and sing along in the B Minor Mass. It was Allan’s idea. He’d done similar events with the Denver Symphony and other organizations.
Allan and I were old friends who had collaborated on various projects for television and live performance, with my responsibility being the words and his being the music. We had done Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat for WNET, as well as some events for the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. So I helped with his plan.
We got a lot of volunteer help. We borrowed light bulbs, we borrowed music stands, we called on all the people we knew in the neighborhood, which included stars such as Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman. And we had the American Symphony Orchestra with some thirty professional musicians.
Of course, the community is extraordinary. That very first Wall to Wall involved West Side residents such as the Zukermans, Jaime Laredo, and Claude Frank, who simply said, “Yes, I’ll come and play some Bach.”
It’s also remarkable to think about the community participants who weren’t famous. We have a videotape from the first Wall to Wall, where someone asked a little girl with a fiddle how she’d felt, playing with Pinchas Zukerman. She said she’d been a little nervous, but it had been OK. That little girl turned out to be Pamela Frank.
Throughout that day, from 11 A.M. to 11P.M., which was free to everyone, thousands of people came and went. Our children clicked the clicker to count the people coming in; they passed out the programs, which the neighborhood printer had run off for us cheap. The day turned into a legendary event. Thousands now claim to have been there who never could have attended—it’s like Ted Williams’s final home run. But five thousand were there.
Calvin Tomkins wrote about the event in the New Yorker, quoting Ethel at the end: “You should have seen a woman who just gave us five dollars. She had tears streaming down her cheeks, and she said it was the happiest day of her life. ‘I’ve never played with an orchestra before, and today I made my debut with Pinchas Zukerman.’”
We ended that glorious day with the B Minor Mass, conducted by Allan, with hundreds of people who came along, picked up a copy of the score, and sang as the chorus. I was in the chorus, too, and I’ve been told many times that in the middle of the “Gloria” I was weeping at what a great day it had been. But the part of me that wasn’t weeping was scheming: “We’ve got to take over this joint.”
Founding of Symphony Space
Interviewer: Why would you want to take over a derelict movie theater?
Sheffer: Early that morning, while Pinchas Zukerman was warming up his ensemble, Allan and I were busy cleaning the bathrooms—the Ur-bathrooms, three generations of fixtures ago. And we looked up and said to ourselves, “Oh my gosh, this place has good sound.” It was pure, dumb luck, since the building had first been a fish market and then a skating rink—but it turned out to have good acoustics.
Just like that, we discovered the accidents of architecture that have contributed to the success of Symphony Space. The place, quite simply, is audience-friendly. Even at the start, when the stage was still some platforms that my colleague and mentor Joe Papp had lent us, poets and actors and musicians who performed here would say, “Hey, it’s a good room. You can hear and see.” That’s why we’ve always resisted having a conventional proscenium arch, curtain and orchestra pit—anything that would create a gulf between the performers and the audience. The actors onstage in Selected Shorts, or the musician performing a trio, feel the back row is not very far away.
Joanne Cossa: There’s an extraordinary intimacy between the performer and the audience. It has something to do with the odd shape of this interior, which is more of a square than a rectangle. When an actor is reading in Selected Shorts, you can literally hear a pin drop. I remember when William Hurt came off stage and said, “Where do you get these people? They listen.” Well, our audience is special, but so is the theater. It has an electric communication that’s very unusual in a place with this many seats.
Interviewer: So you began scheming. What was the next step?
Sheffer: The next morning, as our children helped us sort the nickels, dimes, and dollars that had been thrown into the hat, I made up the name Symphony Space, meaning a space in the old Symphony movie theater, but a space where you could do much more than the building had ever contained before. We incorporated with a few friends. By May 1978, we had a temporary lease. In June, we organized another Wall to Wall, just to show the world we could do such a thing, and over the summer we held some other events—and all the while we were busy with our professional lives. I was directing a show in Philadelphia, at the Playhouse in the Park, when Allan called to say that Bevis Longstreth, our current board chairman, had gotten us our first grant, for $10,000, through his friends at the Ford Foundation.
Interviewer: How did you program Symphony Space at the start?
Sheffer: Our temporary lease, which ran from May through December, allowed us to do whatever we wanted, except for five nights a month when the owners could present boxing and wrestling matches. We used to go out on the street and hustle people to help us dismantle the wrestling ring, mop the place, put up the platforms for the stage, and lift the piano we had borrowed on to the makeshift stage. When they lined up we gave them a few dollars—most of them went around and got in the back of the line again. We didn’t mind; we paid them twice.
By September, Allan and I felt ready to rule out some squares on a piece of paper and make a calendar for October 1978. Allan said, “OK, on this night I’ll have some friends perform some Mozart trios,” and I said, “On this night, I’ll have some friends do a play reading. “The challenge was to fill in the blanks. Allan and I soon realized we could never dominate this place; there were simply too many days in the year. So we decided Symphony Space would serve two functions. A percentage of the calendar would be devoted to our in-house productions. For the other days, we would make this place as economically accessible as possible to other individuals and ensembles in many arts.
We let the word go out that this place was available—and after three months, we found ourselves having to institute systems to filter requests. There was no real stage and no lighting; we were cleaning and fixing when we could, with a group of volunteers; and yet we had a multitude of requests from recitalists, theater groups, dance ensembles, and many contemporary music groups who up to that time had been performing in university halls and churches. By January, 1979, we knew there was an expressed need from all quarters to use this place.
(The following is from a memo from Isaiah to Allan.) “We had lots of difficulties with the old theater. About a year into our tenure there was trouble with the boiler. The audience for METROPOLIS, a performing group, was wearing their coats, but no one left or complained about the cold. Haas, the manager of METROPOLIS, and I had a little scene as he asked couldn’t we take $100 off the rental price because it had been cold. I said no, we were sorry, we had done all we could, which was true, and that he hadn’t lost a penny or one customer, and I didn’t think we should be punished. He finally paid me the $500. (That Sheffer; he’s tough.)”
Cossa: The early Wall to Walls had John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Morgan Freeman, Beverly Sills, Barbara Cook, Madeleine Kahn, and Dawn Upshaw. They immediately responded to the notion that events with unusual formats were happening at this place at 95th Street.
Sheffer: When we held play readings, Broadway stars would come to participate, which gave us our first glimmer of what we might later do in Selected Shorts. We received that same level of community support with Bloomsday on Broadway, our annual reading of James Joyce's Ulysses, which we began in 1982. The list of participants has included Bob and Ray, Fionnula Flanagan, Milo O’Shea, Claire Bloom, Frank McCourt, and Lili Taylor.
So you see, our mission was always community-based. We were just lucky enough to be in one of the most diverse and brilliant cultural communities in the world.
Opening the Doors to the Community
Interviewer: But you also had community involvement from artists who were not famous.
Sheffer: Groups quickly responded. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players came along the very first year and remain with us till this day. Young Albert Bergeret, who was running the Barnard-Columbia Gilbert and Sullivan program, needed a place that wasn’t City Center but that wasn’t a college basement, either. He found it here, and Symphony Space has since become NYGASP’s unofficial home.
Cossa: That aspect of our programming has been tremendously important—because as time went on, Symphony Space drew people who had expertise in other fields, so that our programs were constantly broadened.
In the late 1980s, for example, we asked the World Music Institute to become part of our Performance Subsidy Program. Before I came here I didn’t know anything about ethnomusicology; I didn’t know about Moroccan Gnawi trance music. But I knew that Robert Browning did. And though we were too poor to say, “We’ll hire you and you’ll put on a lot of concerts,” we could give him a home, so he could present a great part of his season. That partnership is now twelve years old.
Sheffer: I take great pleasure when someone comes up to me at the onion counter at Fairway and says, “Loved your Nigerian dance troupe.” For all that I don’t know about Nigerian dance, I’m thrilled to have helped bring that person and that troupe together.
Interviewer: On what terms did you rent Symphony Space to NYGASP and other groups?
Sheffer: That first year we set up a simple scheme, whereby you put down $250—”you” being a recitalist or a theater company—and you would have this place for an evening, if Allan and I judged you were meritorious and your work was of artistic interest. We made some judgments based on speculation and hope—such as the legendary Night of the Accordion Sextet, which will not be mentioned again. And you got back your $250 out of the contributions that came in at the door. So groups initially used this place for free—and that spread the awareness of Symphony Space. That was the beginning of our present Performance Subsidy Program.
Cossa: The Performance Subsidy Program creates partnerships with other institutions that are small but have something of artistic value to this community. They get a 35 to 40 percent discount on the rent, beyond the discount that we give to every 501(c)(3), on a rate that’s already below market to begin with. On top of that, we give these partners production and marketing services. In return, we have things on the stage that we don’t have the resources to produce ourselves.
Interviewer: In terms of Symphony Space’s contribution to the larger culture of New York City and the nation, why is it important to throw open the doors to all these different artists and groups?
Cossa: There is always a need for performers to be able to show their work, whether well-established in their careers or not—to try out things in a non-threatening atmosphere where they don’t have to worry about the New York Times critics, in a place that is friendly and inviting. That was what Symphony Space offered at the beginning and continues to offer. This place became attractive to the cultural community, and earned great loyalty from them. That loyalty contributed enormously to our ability to survive.
Sheffer: Here we were, creating a gathering place for all these different arts and all these different communities, and doing it in unexpected circumstances. We were viewed at first as brightening a downtrodden block in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood. That gave a sense of adventure to Symphony Space—which is one of the many reasons why, when our epic real-estate struggle began, we were so determined to hold our ground.
We held on even when developers made tantalizing promises that after they’d demolished the building, they would put up something that would include “a state-of-the-art theater”—a phrase to be wary of, my friends. We were extremely skeptical that a plastered cubicle, located two escalator flights down in some real estate development with six movie theaters and an apartment house, would be nearly as good as the theater we had, or could have anything like the spirit of Symphony Space.
Many other arts organizations begin by setting themselves up in business and then say, after a while, “We’ve got to do some community outreach.” We were just the opposite. We started with community outreach. And while we’ve become professional and institutional, we continue to have these community support structures. Of course, our community is extraordinary.
The connecting threads, I think, are a sense of adventure, a sense of accessibility to the artists, a sense of innovation for the audience, and a sense of friendliness and warmth, all while top professional standards are being maintained. That’s the real trick. If you can make it really top-flight, and at the same time keep it warm and encouraging participation, then you’ve achieved something.