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Jenny Bilfield plans to bring new approaches to Lively Arts

L.A. Cicero Jenny Bilfield

Jenny Bilfield takes the reins of Lively Arts at a pivotal time, as the 37-year-old organization re-engineers itself within the context of the university’s arts initiative.

BY BARBARA PALMER

Jenny Bilfield was 22 years old and not long out of college when, as the newly hired director of a struggling orchestral training program, she proposed an ambitious plan to train student musicians in contemporary performance technique by producing a series of new works by living composers.

"I can't tell you how many people told me I was insane," recalled Bilfield, who became artistic and executive director of Stanford Lively Arts last August. But the series, the New Music Orchestral Project, was a smash, launching 48 new orchestral works over four years—including world premieres at Carnegie Hall—and earning Bilfield an award for adventuresome programming from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and one for orchestra management from the American Symphony Orchestra League.

The experience taught Bilfield early in her career not only that she could trust her instincts but also that she could successfully "poke at traditional pearls of wisdom," she said. It's a strategy that Bilfield has employed throughout her career, which includes 12 years spent in the New York City offices of the international concert music publishing company Boosey and Hawkes Inc., where she rose to the rank of president.

At Boosey and Hawkes, which represents the catalogs of such diverse figures as Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, Bilfield helped steer the 77-year-old company into new directions, including initiating jazz publishing and children's theater projects. She also demonstrated a deft touch for presenting venerated works and composers in fresh ways: She once arranged for a performance of Copland's 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man to be performed at a space shuttle launch and recently brokered the first-ever collaboration between Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a month-long series celebrating composer Steve Reich's 70th birthday.

"Whenever anyone says, 'Absolutely not, that will never work,' that's the moment to ask the question, 'Why not?' " Bilfield said.

The new director took the reins of Lively Arts at a pivotal time, as the 37-year-old arts organization is re-engineering itself within the context of the arts initiative. The initiative, announced by President John Hennessy in spring 2006, seeks to make the arts an integral component of the university's educational mission through cross-disciplinary collaboration between the arts and other disciplines, and campus engagement activities.

That challenge, combined with the quality of arts experience and scope of Stanford's vision, was what convinced Bilfield, a native New Yorker who was living very happily in Brooklyn with her husband, composer Joel Friedman; daughter, Hallie; and two parrots, to apply for the job, she said. While other universities in recent years have announced similar campus-wide initiatives to expand arts education and integrate the performing arts into the curriculum, Stanford is unique, Bilfield said. "This is a place where creativity and interdisciplinary work are in the genetic code. Working with faculty has been a great privilege and especially invigorating."

Bilfield is experienced as a performer and composer as well as an arts manager and presenter: She studied music seriously until about the age of 22 and earned a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Pennsylvania. But ultimately, the working life of a composer proved to be too solitary and internal for Bilfield, whose style is warm and collaborative.

It won't be until autumn 2007 that Bilfield's imprint will be fully visible on Lively Arts programming. But events planned next month to coincide with campus visits of some high-profile artists—including hip-hop performance artist Jerry Quickley, pianists Anthony de Mare and Steven Mayer, playwright David Henry Hwang, percussionist Kenny Endo and others—will deploy the artists across multiple disciplines and bring the arts into conversations about politics, sociology and African American history, as well as about creativity and aesthetics. The experiences will be true to the spirit of the arts initiative, "which is to ensure that students and faculty have ample opportunity to engage with the arts in a very personal and direct way, and from a variety of vantage points," Bilfield said.

Events were organized by campus engagement director Michelle Lee, the Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts, the Institute for Diversity in the Arts and numerous departments across campus. Continuing the kinds of deepened campus connections that began during the tenure of former Lively Arts director Lois Wagner, the events will include lectures, workshops, discussion forums, demonstrations and artist salons in venues including dorms, classrooms and concert halls. "I'm interested in fostering an environment where artists can take creative risks, where they can discuss the provenance of their work," Bilfield said.

In the future, audiences can expect "there will be a broader array of styles—music, dance, theater, multidisciplinary—and formats represented on our stages alongside idioms such as chamber music, for which we have a strong and loyal audience," Bilfield said.

A dream audience

The Lively Arts audience is a dream audience—intellectual and curious with the capacity to demand and expect good work, Bilfield said. "I am eager for Lively Arts to become a much bolder curator of events that stimulate discussion during and beyond the performance. New work will definitely be a significant part of this, and it will be essential to bring artists to Stanford who find this dynamic community inspiring.

"It's incumbent upon us—upon all arts presenters and performers—to create an experience and to present work that our audience would be hard-pressed to replicate in their homes. A counterweight, if you will, to our very 'on-demand' cultural consumerism," she said. The planned construction of a new concert hall and performing arts center, announced last fall, "add additional momentum and urgency to our work," she added.

"I believe that a successful arts experience can transform the audience from the time they enter a performance space to well after they leave," Bilfield said. "A tall order, but worth the stretch."