Matthew VanBesien is sitting in his office atop Avery Fisher Hall, a building bustling with musicians, staff, and audience members that houses one of the world's most recognizable concert halls. Last January the New York Philharmonic's Board of Directors reached across continents to choose him as the Orchestra's next Executive Director. Nine months later, he has taken the reins of this 171-year-old orchestra.
The 42-year-old's route here was circuitous. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised primarily in Denver and rural Illinois, he resisted his parents' early attempts to expose him to classical music through piano lessons and televised concerts, but he eventually came to it on his own. "When I was 12 they brought instruments to my school," VanBesien recalls. "I saw a French horn and I thought, 'That looks different,' and six months later, I thought, 'This is what I'm going to do.'" After studying music at Indiana University, he landed a spot in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, where he stayed from 1992 to 2000.
Although a promising start for a performance career, the LPO became more important for drawing out VanBesien's talent for planning and oversight. Unlike most other orchestras, the LPO at the time was essentially run by the musicians, and he was elected to one of the leadership committees. He found that, as he puts it, "The administrative side attracted me in terms of how I could play a leadership role in reimagining what an orchestra could be in the 21st century."
Exploring that question became Matthew VanBesien's passion, and it moved him from his seat onstage to a career behind the scenes, first at the Houston Symphony, where he rose through the ranks to become executive director, and then to Australia, where he was managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. When they approached him, both institutions were grappling with serious dilemmas, such as the Melbourne Symphony's need to relocate temporarily during its concert hall's renovation. Many would have shied away from such problems, but VanBesien embraced them. "I guess I am drawn to challenges," he says. "They are stimulating : good things and important progress can come from them."
The new Executive Director brings this optimism and curiosity to the New York Philharmonic. He and his wife, geoscientist Rosanne Jowitt, relocated to the Big Apple in March. He had traveled here often on business and for pleasure, and so knew that the city was "a hub of artistic activity : in concerts and also backstage, with performers and international administrators passing through all the time." In the past the couple visited galleries, but now that they live here, "the greatest exploration that lies ahead is in theater, cabaret, and jazz; it's an incredible environment for all three, and we haven't had a chance to do much yet." This all-embracing interest in a variety of art forms meshes with the Philharmonic's recent fusing of the visual, theatrical, and orchestral under Alan Gilbert's watch, such as in the productions of operas by Ligeti and Janšcˇek as well as Philharmonic 360 at Park Avenue Armory last June. Clearly, more is in store.
VanBesien and Gilbert share many interests, and they have been crossing paths for years. "I met Alan during my very first administrative role in Houston," VanBesien recalls, "and I've long admired his conducting and what he's about as a musician. In fact, the last concert I attended before going to Australia was with Alan and the Philharmonic in January 2010. I felt that the Orchestra was already different : it played with an intention that I'd not always sensed before." During VanBesien's interview process, he and the Music Director spoke many times, and he characterizes their conversations as "very inspiring; there was a sense that we could create a great partnership around expanding the idea of what an orchestra like the Philharmonic could be."
The Executive Director elaborates: "Neither of us wants to abandon tradition : Alan is such a serious musician and artist that the highest artistic standards are a given : but that tradition can't just be that this is America's oldest symphony orchestra. Alan and I both understand that great art is not confined to the traditional idea of what a symphony orchestra has been. I love the work he and the Philharmonic have already done in collaborations with artists from different areas, and I really admire the openness to a broader palette of music. A great example is Marsalis's Swing Symphony [which Gilbert led in its U.S. Premiere on Opening Night in 2010], which we're bringing back in June. Alan's eagerness to explore non-traditional influences is one of the threads here that I find extremely exciting."
This search for new influences is echoed by Matthew VanBesien's commitment to expanding the Philharmonic's central role in its hometown. "Obviously, the Orchestra has always been part of the fabric of the city," he says. "It is one of the centerpieces of New York, which is one of the cultural capitals of the world. But I'd like the connection to be even more vivid. I'd like to build on projects like our annual Concerts in the Parks : a wonderful tradition : and the School Partnership Program to bring the Philharmonic to more New Yorkers where they live, as well as give more people the chance to come to Avery Fisher Hall. We need to be both a great orchestra and serve the people of this city, to find new ways to be part of the mosaic of daily life here. I really want this to be the New York Philharmonic."
So one of the challenges that enticed Matthew VanBesien to come to New York is the question of how to balance tradition with advancement. Sitting at his desk overlooking Broadway he reflects: "Every day is a new day, and we will always honor the Philharmonic's history and artistic past while pushing to expand what we do, with an eye to the future."
Monica Parks is the Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.