Gardner Museum Launches New Contemporary Performance Series

Starting Thursday, Stir will expose audiences to the "wild and exploratory side" of contemporary music and performance art every month inside the Calderwood Hall, featuring new works and world premieres by Gardner favorites.

Photo by Alex Lau

Photo by Alex Lau

Starting this week, visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum may find some sounds coming from the Calderwood Hall once a month quite jarring. Some sounds may even make them anxious. Some sounds will even make them question whether such sounds can qualify as music. But despite all this, organizers of the new Stir series at the museum encourage audience members to keep an open mind as they’re exposed to the “wild and exploratory side” of contemporary music and performance art.

“We hope to attract an audience that’s adventurous and wants to explore different things, looks for unusual experiences, and wants to stretch their minds,” said Pieranna Cavalchini, the Tom and Lisa Blumenthal Curator of Contemporary Art who headed up the series alongside Scott Nickrenz, the museum’s Abrams Curator of Music.

Stir launches Thursday, February 6, with an event featuring the world premiere of a piece by composer Lee Hyla that was specially commissioned by the Callithumpian Consort, a group led by Stephen Drury from the New England Conservatory that regularly performs at the Gardner. The group will also perform other works from Hyla’s vast repertoire.

“It’s a way to see the composer through their past and then see what he’s currently doing in a brand new piece by him, to really make this music come alive and make it more personal,” said Alicia Mielke, music coordinator at the Gardner. “You can see the musicians are clearly very excited and engaged in this music and that way, you can internalize it rather than just kind of being confused with it playing in the background. I think it creates this whole different experience.”

In addition to the Callithumpian Consort, upcoming Stir events, which are set to take place on the first Thursday of every month (with the exception of April 17) will feature other artists who have already established a relationship with the Gardner.

“I’m really interested in helping artists workshop ideas. It’s a lot of invested energy and we don’t force it to develop—it kind of happens by itself in a way. If they come up with an idea that’s something that we can support and maybe use the museum as a laboratory for workshopping the project, we try to do so,” said Cavalchini, who works closely with artists-in-residence at the Gardner. “A lot of these projects are somehow connected to the museum—sometimes indirectly—and it’s a very different way of looking at the space.”

In March, digital art trio OpenEndedGroup will premiere Saccades, a 3D film that resulted from their 2012 residency at the museum. In April, poet Susan Howe and composer David Grubbs will present a sound-work that features field recordings made at the museum in 2012, and toy pianist Phyllis Chen will perform alongside A Far Cry, the Gardner’s resident chamber orchestra.

But even if audience members are familiar with the artists through previous engagements at the Gardner—for example, the Avant Gardner contemporary music series that Stir will officially replace in order to incorporate more visual and performance art into the museum’s contemporary programming—or elsewhere, Stir events promise something new every time.

“For instance, if you’re in the contemporary music scene and know Lee Hyla’s work, the twist is that even if you know his music, we have a brand new composition. The main thing is that it will always be surprising and new and fresh,” said Mielke. “In a way, I think you can expect the unexpected.”

Generally, organizers expect that the Stir audience will be different from the audience that attends the Gardner’s Sunday Concert Series for its classical chamber music. And they hope the series will help to build a larger audience for all of its contemporary programming, an audience that can appreciate all things new.

“The audience in this city is so amazing—there are so many amazing schools, so many incredible lives, so many students. It’s a maelstrom of ideas here, so hopefully this will contribute to the overall mosaic of the city,” said Cavalchini. “It’s part of [Isabella Stewart Gardner’s] legacy—that idea of bringing creative force into the museum has always worked that way.”

The series kicks off this Thursday, February 6, at 7 p.m. in the Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 Fenway. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $5 for students, and free for members and children ages 7-17, and include museum admission. For more information, including future programming, visit

Clarification 2/6/2014: Alicia Mielke’s title at the Gardner is Music Coordinator, not Concert Manager.