Organizing a schedule of more than 300 different literature, theater, music and film events is no small feat, but it’s what Symphony Space’s new artistic director Andrew Byrne did his first year on the job. The boyish, 49-year-old Australian native, who started last September and will soon embark on his first season of programming with the institution, boasts a classical pedigree suited for the task, but a laid-back demeanor that seems at home in Symphony Space’s casual offices at 95th Street and Broadway.
Byrne first came to New York in 1993 to study composition at Columbia University, and spent 10 years with Carnegie Hall, where he established some of the famed institution’s music festivals and special events.
Now, he’s tasked with redefining Symphony Space’s expansive performance calendar and diversifying its audience. West Side Spirit visited Byrne in his office to discuss what he learned in his first year on the job and what we can expect from the upcoming season, which includes an artist residency with violist Nadia Sirota, a discussion of Einstein’s theory of relativity and Symphony Space’s long-running Selected Shorts reading series.
Tell me a bit about your role as the new artistic director.
One of the challenges I felt with Symphony Space that I could address or bring my experience to was that we have such a diversity of programming here that perhaps the identity of the institution gets a little bit obscured.
If you talk to five different people about Symphony Space, you often get five different answers. Symphony Space is about Selected Shorts, or it’s about world music or it’s about film, or quite often, I’m not even sure because I hear so many different stories.
When you started last year, how did you prepare to develop this new season?
I spent the first three or four months just going to every show, getting a sense of what worked well, what our audiences were, all that stuff. And then in December, January, started to think about the season.
One thing that struck me which I didn’t know was the incredible different types of audiences we get to shows here.
Selected Shorts which is one of our legacy programs, gets maybe an older audience. It’s very established. But there’s Uptown Showdown, which is this comedy debate funky wacky series and that includes writers from the Daily Show and people like Wyatt Cenac, so it’s a younger demographic. It’s a completely different audience.
We have the science talks, Secret Science Club North; it’s people who have this science series in Brooklyn. They bring it up here, and again they draw a completely different audience.
One thing that struck me that I had no idea about before was the diversity of the events and the diversity of the audiences that come here. So it struck me that if I didn’t know about it, then other people didn’t know about it as well. So the potential to communicate that story to a larger world. There’s a lot of unrealized potential I think at this institution.
How does the upcoming season stay loyal to the institution while also creating something new?
Isaiah Sheffer was one of the founding directors, and he talked about Symphony Space as being like a cultural town square. This place is an expression of the Upper West Side community, where we have artists of all different types, and an audience, and they kind of meet together, whether it’s a panel discussion on literature or it’s a music event or it’s a film screening, it’s a place where the community comes together. And I see these projects and the idea of kind of creating larger stories and inviting audiences on journeys of discovery—whether it’s new work or Broadway or the 1915 project—takes what the essence of what the space is about…and takes it to the next stage.
The other thing that people love about Symphony Space is its informal nature. It’s the people’s house. It doesn’t have that same sense as Lincoln Center of being for a sort of audience. It’s accessible. It’s affordable. It’s welcoming. And I think those qualities will remain.
Is there anything you’re especially looking forward to?
The Italian writer Elena Ferrante, she’s an intriguing figure. This will happen in the fall. It’s not part of the four projects but it’s the book club. She’s this shadowy figure that no one’s ever seen before, there’s no pictures of her, she doesn’t do any interviews. She’s published this Neapolitan quartet, and John Waters who’s a big fan is going to be talking to her.
Exactly. That’s the reaction, that’s the essence of what Symphony Space can do so well, is bring these two figures together. So I’ll be intrigued to see how that one goes.
Is cultivating a diverse audience something you’re actively working on with this new season?
Absolutely. I mean I think that, firstly, in terms of the way it is now, we do have lots of different audiences coming to different types of shows. Kind of like at any arts institution. It was the same at Carnegie Hall. When you have a jazz show you get a different audience than for the philharmonic. So we do get, in terms of demographics, a diverse audience.
But, obviously, a Selected Shorts audience is an older audience. It’s of the community. It’s a white audience, educated audience, middle class audience. It’s an audience that’s getting older. So I mean, just in terms of survival we need to reach new audiences and reach younger people and try to expand our audience as much as possible so sure, that’s part of our thinking.
And Source Project is the first in that way.
You can’t just say, we’re going to program a Cuban artist and suddenly we’ll be inundated with a different audience, with a Cuban audience. It’s a long-term strategy. It’s about making this place welcoming… we will in the future have a more kind of systemic audience development project.
At the same time you can’t be everything to everybody. We have a long term strategy over five years that we’ll try the projects out, we’ll see what works, what doesn’t work, I’m sure there’ll be tweaks along the way. And we need to find out, what is our niche? Selected Shorts is one niche but what are the other say musical niches that we can fulfill?
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.