Marna Seltzer took over as manager of Princeton University Concerts on September 1. The first concert of Princeton’s 2010-2011 chamber music series takes place on September 23, barely three weeks after her arrival. During the 2010-2011 season Seltzer oversees the events selected by her predecessor, Nathan Randall, who retired as artistic director in June after running chamber music performances at the University for 22 years. Her impact on programming will not be evident until next season
When I interviewed Seltzer, less than two weeks into her new job, she had memorized her telephone number, learned the layout of the Woolworth music building, and was making copious notes on the nooks and crannies of her responsibilities.
We meet in the Woolworth conference room. Seltzer arrives, yellow-lined pad in hand. She is dressed in sleek black and wears exactly the right amount of makeup to emphasize her features. She works, even as she is being interviewed.
Spreading the word about the Richardson concerts is, rightly, a top priority for Seltzer. The consistent excellence of programming at the concerts has, surprisingly, been met in the past by sparse audiences. Top-notch ensembles have often played in an auditorium rarely more than half full. Seltzer would like to change that.
Catapulted into the Princeton season, Seltzer contrasts her hitting the ground running with her easing into a similar position at the University of Chicago. “I had been to a number of events at Chicago before the season began. I knew what the audience was like, and I knew what people wanted to hear.” There is no such leisure at Princeton.
Seltzer experiences her first Richardson concert as Princeton’s concert manager when the Muir Quartet opens the season in Richardson Auditorium on Thursday, September 23, with pieces by Franz Joseph Haydn, Leos Janacek, and Antonin Dvorak. Trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and at Yale, the Muir ensemble has held a residency at Boston University since 1983.
Although new as a Princeton concert manager, Seltzer knows Richardson Auditorium from her childhood. She lived in Princeton from the time she was in seventh grade until she graduated from Princeton High School and left for Boston University. As a high school student, she played violin in the University Symphony Orchestra under Michael Pratt. “I’ve been to Richardson,” she says, “but I attended without my concert-manager hat.”
Born in 1966 near Cleveland, Ohio, Seltzer grew up in the Chicago area. The family moved to Princeton when her father, Mitch Seltzer, started his own business in the long-range health care field. Her mother, Anne Seltzer, taught English at Hightstown’s Peddie School, became the head of the school, and still serves on its board.
Seriously interested in violin, Seltzer attended Princeton High School because of its strong music program. “At that time Princeton High School was the place to be if you wanted to pursue music,” she says.
What attracted Seltzer to the Princeton position? “Very few universities do the kind of presenting that Princeton does,” she says. “There are only a handful, and many of them are in remote places.
Saltzer favors the word ideal. “Princeton offered an ideal scenario because of the chance to present classical music,” she says. “And presenting classical music at a university struck me as being ideal. And a university in a great location is ideal.
“Another plus,” Seltzer says, “is that I hoped that my four-year-old daughter would grow up near her grandparents.” Seltzer’s parents still live in Princeton.
The power of Princeton’s allure for Seltzer is balanced by her allure for the university. And she is aware of the uniqueness of her professional experience. “Most people in arts management stick to one side or the other,” Seltzer says. “They are either managers or presenters.” Managers tend bookings, schedules, and necessary arrangements; presenters select artists and programs while keeping an eye on behind-the-scenes details.
After graduating from Boston University in 1988 with a major in music history and theory, Seltzer worked for a year as the personal manager for violinist Itzhak Perlman. Further experience on the management side came at Herbert Barrett, the artist management firm.
In 1992 Seltzer joined the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as a manager. “I started out by booking CMS concerts all over the country and got to know the venues everywhere. Then they pulled me into concerts in New York, and I realized that presenting was what interested me.
“Being a presenter is more multi-faceted than management,” Seltzer says. “It involves production, board relations, non-profit management, and fund raising.” After six years at Lincoln Center, she accepted a presenter position at the University of Chicago and became executive director of “The University of Chicago Presents,” its professional concert series.
“It was a bit of a risk,” Seltzer says. “I had worked on programs at Lincoln Center, but I had never worked at a university before. It was a whole other education. At Lincoln Center there was a lot of politics. But there was even more politics at the university.
“At the end of the day at Lincoln Center, everybody was interested in the arts,” Seltzer says. “In a university setting you have to define why you’re important. There are so many interests within a university community — sciences, athletics, literature, law. I spent the first four or five years at Chicago learning how decisions are made, who is in charge, and where the concert series fit in. I found the challenge interesting. One of the things I’m happy about is that that learning curve is done. Now I know the framework of a university structure.”
After eight years at the University of Chicago, Seltzer followed her husband to New Haven, where he was accepted for a highly selective graduate program in architecture. The couple had a daughter, Penelope, and Seltzer cut back on arts management.
She formed Seltzer Arts Consulting, a freelance consulting enterprise. “I never intended to turn it into a full-time project. I did it to keep active after the baby was born,” Seltzer says. From New Haven, she also ran Salt Bay Chamberfest, a small summer music festival in southern Maine.
Gradually, Seltzer developed a professional network that borders on the encyclopedic. She seems to know every artist and manager that I mention. Take the Brentano Quartet, for instance: I ask if she is responsible for the Princeton concerts of the ensemble, which is in residence at Princeton University. The group performs Haydn, Berg, and Beethoven at a free concert on Friday, September 24.
“That concert is not part of my territory,” Seltzer says. “The Brentano was hired by the music department. But I was involved with them when they became the first members of Chamber Music Society II [the emerging-artist wing of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center]. Brentano was also the core of the music festival that I ran in Maine. I look forward to having them around and going to their concerts.”
Seltzer’s family moved to Princeton following her university appointment. “We put a lot of extra energy into raising our daughter,” she says. “Both my husband and I are interested in all the arts. We like cooking. He cooks better than I do. We go to plays, movies, and concerts. And we try to do arts-related activities with Penelope.”
Seltzer hopes to find time for playing chamber music. In addition to her violin, she has acquired a viola. “I love its sound,” she says.
Looking to the future of the university concerts, Seltzer deflects my question about the balance between classical and contemporary music that she foresees. “I have no answer yet,” she says. “I don’t know the definition of new music as it relates to this audience.” Indeed, she is undecided about the extent to which she will be involved in programming the concerts.
Seltzer approaches her work as manager of Princeton’s concerts with deference for its history. “I think that the tradition of the concerts and the expectations of the audience are the foundation of the series, and that it is important for me to respect that. Going through the whole cycle of concerts will give me a better understanding of that tradition and those expectations.” She wants to get a feel for the Princeton University Concerts as an organism before she starts tinkering.
“If you have the trust of the audience, it’s possible to take risks and experiment,” Seltzer says. “But risk is relative. A healthy series should have many different musical styles. I want to establish a sense of excellence and trust. I want the audience to know that traditions won’t change. I want to be able to expand everybody’s horizons. If the concerts include novel presentations, I will consider which artists have the most to say, and which have compelling things to say.”
The university concerts manager is not autonomous, Seltzer points out. “The Concerts Committee oversees all concert operations. The programming subcommittee must approve everything. My sense is that they will want to be really involved.”
The Concerts Committee can get a lot of mileage out of Seltzer’s virtuoso networking talents and her capacity for using the back burner effectively. As both a manager and a presenter Seltzer had had contacts with her predecessor, Nate Randall. “Somehow, as I worked with him,” she says, “a little bell went off in the far distance, and I thought, ‘If Nate’s job ever becomes available, I would love to have it.’” And now she does.
Concert Classics, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, September 23, 8 p.m. The Muir String Quartet performs music of Haydn, Janacek, and Dvorak. $20 to $40. 609-258-9220 or www.princeton.edu/puconcerts.
Also, Brentano String Quartet, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Friday, September 24, 8 p.m. Performers in residence perform music of Haydn, Berg, and Beethoven. Free.