Miller Theatre Executive Director Melissa Smey Pivots to Virtual Programming During Pandemic Restrictions

BY Amanda Breen, April 27, 2021

Last March, the pandemic swept through New York City, leaving devastation and anxiety in its wake, leading many to wonder what the next weeks and months would bring. It was a particularly fraught time for professionals in the performing arts industry, which took severe artistic and economic hits in the face of theatre closures and isolated patrons. Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, New York City’s most acclaimed venue for new music, was also impacted by the tumult. 


Fortunately, Executive Director of the Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre Melissa Smey was at the helm, determined to advance the Miller’s innovative programming despite the mounting shutdowns and uncertainty. 

The Miller Theatre had a sold-out concert with Simone Dinnerstein scheduled for March 12, 2020—the same night stages went dark across New York City. Smey quickly pivoted to a virtual production. She says, “I knew on Sunday evening that we could not have an in-person audience, so we decided to do a livestream.”


As the virus continued to spread, it became clear that in-person performances would be on hold indefinitely. The Miller Theatre had planned a concert with Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra for April 2020. It was to be a culminating celebration of Columbia’s 2019-20 Year of Water. The concert, and the premiere of work commissioned for the occasion, will take place next season instead.


“While in-person concerts were on pause, our mission was not, so we needed to find new ways to fulfill our purpose,” Smey says. Realizing that goal included the development of two exciting new projects: the Live from Columbia concert series and the Mission: Commission podcast. 


Live from Columbia, which launched on November 17, 2020, invites audience members from all over the globe to take virtual front-row seats to performances by world-class musicians. Filmed live in the Lenfest Center for the Arts’ striking Lantern space, the digital series presents the full range of the Miller’s programming—from Bach to jazz to living composers. 


“Our inspiration for Live from Columbia was three-fold,” Smey says. “First, we missed hearing music together with audiences, and wanted to find a way to provide a feeling of togetherness during a time when physically being together was not possible. Second, we wanted to provide much-needed performance opportunities for musicians. Third, we missed being on campus and heard from Columbia colleagues and students that they did, too. From these ideas, we created Live from Columbia. I am a big fan of the Lenfest Center for the Arts—it is such a beautiful building, and I was excited for it to be featured so prominently in the series.”


Mission: Commission is a six-episode, weekly podcast that demystifies how classical music gets made. The series follows the journeys of composers Marcos Balter, Courtney Bryan, and Augusta Read Thomas as they each set out to create a newly commissioned piece of music in six weeks. Smey, the podcast’s host, checks in with the composers to discuss their unique creative processes.


“I really want to invite everyone to love classical music,” Smey says. “I hope that hearing these three composers talk about their process—the daily work and its challenges, their joys and frustrations, and honestly, just being a human during a global pandemic—will help listeners feel connected to how classical music gets made.”

Left to right: Composers Marcos Balter, Courtney Bryan, and Augusta Read Thomas

The first episode of Mission: Commission aired on April 13, 2021, and its six episodes will be released on a weekly basis. You can listen to the series on the podcast’s website, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify. 


The Miller’s digital programming has been so successful that Smey anticipates its continuation even after it’s safe to resume in-person performances. “We have built new audiences across the world with the Live from Columbia concerts, and we hope to see the same for the podcast,” Smey says. “Part of Miller Theatre’s mission is to develop new audiences for classical music, and digital programming has given us an important opportunity to expand our reach.”


For Smey, the cultivation of new classical musical enthusiasts is personal. “I started playing the flute in fifth grade and had no idea then that it would be the beginning of a lifelong passion for music,” she says. “Playing music opened so many doors and opportunities for me. It led to relationships that have changed my life. I remember playing a new piece in the college wind ensemble, and the conductor/professor had invited the composer to a rehearsal. It was the first time I realized that composers can be living people and that composing was a career. That experience still inspires me.”


Smey has commissioned new works from composers Georges Aperghis, Julio Estrada, Hilda Paredes, and John Zorn; produced the United States premiere productions of Kaija Saariaho’s ballet Maa and James Dillon’s epic new music cycle Nine Rivers; and produced the urban outdoor premiere of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit, which featured 99 musicians and 1,000 percussion instruments for an audience of over 2,500 in Harlem’s Morningside Park. 


Additionally, Smey has held positions at the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Opera and has served as panelist and speaker for various New York City and national arts organizations, including New York University, Philadelphia New Music Project, Works and Process at the Guggenheim, and Chamber Music America.


Smey’s commitment to innovation has enabled the Miller’s programming to flourish, connecting musicians and audiences despite the challenges of the past year. Now and in the future, Columbians can look forward to a campus experience defined by this essential and lively exposure to the arts.