Heading into my summer internship in New York, I had the understandable urge to amass as many quintessential city experiences as possible. I wanted to participate in all the social activity and culture it has to offer, but I knew this was an impossible task for even a life-long city dweller, let alone an intern living in Harlem for ten weeks. Some experiences - eating pizza under the Brooklyn Bridge, befriending cockroaches, sweating through my shirt on the subway platform en route to Yankee Stadium, and losing track of a weekend inside the Met and the Guggenheim, to name a few - happened almost as a matter of course. But I didn’t expect my employer, the 92nd Street Y, to offer such a rich cultural crash course from its modest home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Formally known as the 92nd Street Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association, 92Y is an historic Jewish community center established in 1874, akin to the YMCA and YWCA. Jewish principles continue to guide its work, but it caters to all races and faiths, and its staff is an encapsulation of the city’s alluring diversity. As a non-profit, it’s a unique beast: its offerings include a full-service gym with fitness classes and rec sports leagues; an education wing offering classes for all ages taught by experts on food and wine, art, dance, music, writing, current affairs, etc.; lectures and conversations with high-profile journalists, academics, and cultural luminaries; youth camps and a daycare; High Holy Days services and other worship events; and my area of work, a concerts division known for being a chief purveyor of world-class classical and jazz music in the city.
I arrived at 92Y without any preconceived notions, having spent the previous nine months advising a dedicated group of undergraduates who booked national touring musicians on the UW campus two or three nights a week. Our acts were mostly indie and hip-hop bands popular with the college crowd, and our productions were modest, mostly due to the limited equipment and technical freedom at our disposal. We filled our time drawing up performance contracts, wrangling technical riders, and making logistical arrangements for the occasional unexpected tour bus - all within the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Wisconsin Union. Thus, I came with the excitement and nerves familiar to any new hire, eager to bring my experience to bear but also forge interpersonal connections and absorb information like a sponge.
Fortunately, working in the 92Y Concerts office has provided a stimulating glimpse of how one of New York’s premier arts presenting organizations brings events to life. At points chaotic, mundane, and thrilling, the process of developing a classical music season such as 92Y’s takes years of preparation. It starts with idea meetings and artist outreach, then building a schedule fit to ever-shifting budget targets, then finalizing performance details, contracts, and marketing strategies, and finally handing the reins to the stage crew and house staff. The summer is a particularly hectic season in 92Y’s programming cycle because it’s an overlap of several of these stages: we’re currently committed to producing a jazz series in the evening, but our days are a flurry of completing administrative work, implementing a marketing regime and pushing ticket sales for the 2015-16 classical season, and developing a working budget and artist lineup for the following season nearly two years, down the road. In a single day, I can critique a renowned architect’s prototype of a dancer-operated art installation for an upcoming concert, execute contracts and recording authorizations with artists, supply our marketing team with exhaustive research on the 2015-16 classical season’s musicians, funders, and potential promotional partners, Tweet at Tony Bennett from 92Y’s official account, and then head downstairs to watch top-flight jazz musicians burn up the stage.
92Y Concerts’ major summer event is Jazz In July, a concert series showcasing some of the genres finest saluting their musical forebears, which happens to be my favorite part of the internship. (The series is sustained by a generous gift from UW-Madison’s own Jerome and Simona Chazen). Every night of the festival features a packed 920-seat theater with near-perfect acoustics and an immaculately lit stage, complete with a full jazz band set up and maybe even an extra piano (because why not?). Witnessing distant cousins Bill Charlap and Dick Hyman, the present and former artistic directors of the Jazz In July festival and each a legendary jazz pianist in his own right, musically converse with one another on their Steinways during a rehearsal is a moment I won’t soon forget, not solely because of the sublime musicality on display, but because I helped make it happen, right here in the world’s jazz capital.