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May 27, 2014

Educational Entrepreneur of the Arts: Ellis Finger Reflects on 31 Memorable Years

By Geoff Gehman ’80

Ellis Finger helped make Lafayette’s Williams Center for the Arts a multimedia mecca. Over 31 years the building’s only director presented everything from a hip-hop Romeo and Juliet to a Nosferatu set in yuppie-plagued, AIDS-spooked Manhattan. Aided by college colleagues, he developed a repertory company of jazz all-stars and a global laboratory for Orpheus, the conductorless orchestra, that’s lasted 27 years. He was an educational entrepreneur, a visionary impresario, a scholarly fan.

Ellis Finger mingles with student and alumni during the McKelvy House 50th anniversary reception.

Ellis Finger mingles with student and alumni during the McKelvy House 50th anniversary reception.

Finger, who is retiring effective June 30, was saluted by the College at the annual Pre-Commencement Dinner May 23 for “a career performed con brio.”

The former German teacher and development officer will be honored again May 28, when the Lehigh Valley Arts Council thanks him for running the area’s first true arts center and for improving the area’s cultural life.

Not quite ready to leave the Williams Center, he’s a member of the team searching for his successor. He plans to advise the building’s second director about programs he helped create, including a $450,000 Mellon Foundation sponsorship of residencies by choreographers at local colleges through 2016.

Below, in a sort of exit interview, Finger discusses his memorable, influential career as a traffic controller for an airport of the imagination.

Q: What part of the job did you end up liking, or even loving, that you never anticipated even enjoying?

A: My partnership and friendship with [the late] Mulgrew Miller, the great jazz pianist who lived in Easton. He appeared here in many formations. He was an artist-in-residence and the featured pianist with all four of the jazz groups we presented during our 25th-anniversary season. For our 20th anniversary we commissioned him to create a piece for his quintet, Wingspan, and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. That performance took place on Feb. 13, 2004, and the next night, which was Valentine’s Day, Mulgrew performed with Wingspan. He started the second half of the program doodling for three or four minutes until suddenly, out of nowhere, emerged “My Funny Valentine,” with the touch of a magician.

Lafayette gave Mulgrew an honorary doctorate, to honor him for his contributions to the Williams Center. It meant the world to him to receive that honor. I think it justified his choice of Easton as a home and Lafayette as an academic home.

Q: Can you point to a pivotal program or decision that really launched the Williams Center into orbit?

A: In 1989 we presented our first major jazz artist: the Modern Jazz Quartet. Larry Stockton [music professor and jazz authority] persuaded us to book them, largely because he really admired [quartet vibraphonist] Milt Jackson. By 1995 we were doing a full-blown jazz series with four performances a year. The Modern Jazz Quartet was our launching pad.

Another major departure was our week-long residency in 1988 with [radical theater writer/director/producer] Ping Chong. Ping was recommended by Suzanne Westfall [English professor and now interim director of the arts]; we both agreed we needed something more contemporary than our earlier theater productions, which included five English actors performing Shakespeare’s plays.

The first work Ping presented here, Kind Ness, had some locker-room humor that offended some old timers, but our students loved it. It helped give us the track record that gave us entre in 1992 to a new program funded by the Lila Wallace Foundation. We received around $120,000 for Ping to remount Nosferatu: A Symphony of Darkness. It had opened during a major newspaper strike in New York and got completely lost.

We later brought Ping and his company to Lafayette to stage other productions: Chinoiserie, Beowulf, Undesirable Elements. He’s had a long, very satisfying relationship with the Lafayette community and the community in general. He’s made a difference to us, and I think we’ve made a difference to him.

Q: Who else at Lafayette helped you expand Williams programming?

A: [Williams gallery director] Michiko Okaya, among others. We’ll talk about what I have on the drawing board and she won’t engage in a conversation right then, but she’ll come back and the next thing I know there’s a larger dimension coming out of the gallery program. I had booked a performance by Sequentia, the medieval-music ensemble, and Mich found a stone carver who every summer was working in the yard area of St. John the Divine, carving gargoyles. He set up this workshop in the lobby of the Williams Center and for 48 hours or so Lafayette inhabited the medieval period.

Mich and I worked very closely on Eiko & Koma’s Environmental Trilogy, which included [the choreographer-dancers] performing River in the Delaware River. I was talking to Mich about slowing down the mindset of spectators, so they would have the patience to understand and respond to Eiko & Koma. I told her about visiting the Japan Pavilion at the EPCOT Center during a family vacation and watching a video piece of a mesmerizing sculpture that involved a frozen pyramidal cone, hung inverted from a tower, that over six to eight hours melts and releases pebbles onto cross-weavings of bamboo. Before I knew it, Mich had not only found a reference to the project, she had the sculpture shipped to us. We presented it before Eiko & Koma performed their first dance, and it did the trick.

We ended up buying the sculpture; we put it out every now and then. It will be out again next September before the opening program [of the 2014-15 season], when Ethel, the string quartet, performs to photographs created in 1972 to mark the establishment of the Clean Water Act and to honor the scenic beauty of the American countryside.

Q: One of your calling cards is the added bonus. You ramped up the Phillip Glass residency with seven lecture-interviews with Glass; you spiced up the 25th-anniversary season of the Williams Center by commissioning Larry Fink to photograph Orpheus rehearsals and concerts. Take me behind the scenes of another added bonus.

A: In 1996 we had John Adams conduct Ensemble Modern, a group from Germany, in a program called From A to Z—from Adams to Zappa. Before the concert I saw two figures just sitting in the Williams lobby, talking. One was John Adams and the other was [choral conductor] Helmuth Rilling, the music director for many years of the Oregon Bach Festival; he was in Philadelphia conducting [Bach’s] St. Matthew Passion. Out of that meeting came a German commission in 2000, to mark Bach’s 250th anniversary, for four new, contemporary settings of Bach’s four Passions from four different cultural backgrounds: German, American, Asian, and South American.

Every year you’re going to stumble upon something that surprises you. You have to have the confidence that if you go for it, it may require a little extra work, a little more money, but it’s going to be a revelation, an epiphany. Of course, you never know if it’s going to be an epiphany for an audience. It just breaks my heart that we can’t get 400 people to listen to a work by John Adams. That’s the price of walking that very fine tightrope between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Q: How about an example of successful audience development?

A: Orpheus actually was that way. We didn’t start selling out their concerts until around the third or fourth year. Attendance began rising when the ensemble members decided that performing with a guest soloist instead of an ensemble soloist was immensely more satisfying for the Carnegie Hall programs they previewed, or tested, at Lafayette. So we began to get front-line soloists at no additional cost: [pianist] Emanuel Ax; [operatic soprano] Susan Graham; [sitarist] Anoushka Shankar in a concerto we commissioned by her father, Ravi.

We’ve used Orpheus as a role model for self-directed leadership at Lafayette. Students have learned about how members of the ensemble are selected to select everything from repertory to guest soloists. They’ve learned about the anti-hierarchical approach to making music and governing an organization by consensus. They’ve watched sound checks, when Orpheus members perform snippets of pieces; when one piece is done, everyone gets up and repositions themselves. They’ve had a rare look at how Orpheus manages their affairs similar to the ways that Lafayette students manage organizations.

Orpheus and I joke about our relationship as the highest form of co-dependence. They can’t live without us, and we can’t live without them.

Q: How about a student whose growth you helped direct, or re-direct?

A: I remember when Tom DiGiovanni [’96] came with other pre-freshmen to the Williams Center and wanted to see our piano. He’s a really athletic-looking guy—he was recruited to play football—who’s also a great pianist. He’s now a teacher in Phillipsburg and he wrote me a note for my farewell party saying that the Ensemble Modern program had changed his thinking, fundamentally, about new music, after years spent with jazz. From that point on he knew that was where he wanted to live, musically.

Q: How about acts you wanted to book that you couldn’t?

A: The Mark Morris Dance Company; we had about all the major dance companies except his. [Cellist] Yo-Yo Ma, although I helped negotiate and stage managed his 1998 performance of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites for the Bach Choir [of Bethlehem, which Finger serves as a tenor and a writer].

One of my regrets is the struggle to present solo vocal recitals, a repertory I love. We’ve certainly had vocalists, but almost always with an ensemble. [Operatic soprano] Susan Graham, for example, performed Ned Rorem songs with Orpheus.

Q: Can you single out three unforgettable experiences in the Williams Center, performances that were exciting, moving, transcendent?

A: Rennie Harris and Puremovement’s Rome and Jules. It was an electrifying retelling of Romeo and Juliet; it cut deep to the urban experience and Rennie’s raw memories of growing up with gangs in West Philadelphia. The concert last October with Orpheus and Brad Meldhau, a jazz pianist and composer who lives in Amsterdam. I helped find a sweet spot in Orpheus’ negotiation with Brad, who had really enjoyed playing in the Williams Center with [saxophonist] Joshua Redman in 2011. We were part of a partnership that commissioned Brad to write a concerto for Orpheus. The recording of the piece, which will come out on Nonesuch, was made live in the Williams Center.

I have a fond memory of [bassist] Edgar Meyer’s performance with the Emerson String Quartet, which began with a duo played by Edgar and cellist David Finckel. It was a rather festive, virtuoso piece performed from memory, with no music stands and just a single chair. I remember Edgar danced as he played. He just couldn’t contain the musicianship within himself.

Q: What will you miss most about the job?

A: Interaction with artists and their careers. There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with the job. You can significantly change the direction of artists by hiring them to perform, or by commissioning a work from them, or by giving them time in the theater to build a piece, as we did with Rennie Harris and Eiko & Koma. We’ve made Lafayette a platform for championing an artist’s career from an early period. We’ve influenced artistic choices by colleagues at performing-arts centers across the country. We’ve resonated.

Q: What will you do in retirement that you couldn’t do on the job?

A: I’ll keep my involvements in the presenting world. I’m on the governing board of Princeton University Concerts, which presents classical music at my Ph.D. alma mater. I’ll continue to go to dance venues and jazz clubs in New York and see friends I’ve made. I’ll finally have time to see things I didn’t have time to see: the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, the Oregon Bach Festival, summer festivals in Tuscan villages, many run by American musicians. It will be full steam ahead. I won’t lose a step, or a beat.

Q: In other words, less vocation and more avocation.

A: Absolutely. I’ve been truly blessed at the Williams Center, and now I’m thrilled to hand off the opportunities to a younger colleague with fresh energy, who will do a better job of reaching Lafayette students through new means such as social media. As they say in the opera business, when the tenor retires from the Met, you want the public to say “Already?” instead of “Finally!”

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