5 Questions to Melissa Ngan (President and CEO, American Composers Orchestra)

American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is about to emerge from the pandemic with verve and vision. Not only does 2021/2022 season promise premieres of new works by Trevor New, Toshi Reagon, Lisa BielawaPaula MatthusenJason Michael Webb, and Lelund Thompson; performances of works by Anna Clyne, Hannah KendallJoel Thompson, Carlos Simon, Dai Wei, and others; and collaboration with the Apollo Theater, the National Black Theatre, Harlem Chamber Players, and the Gateways Music Festival: ACO also has a new President and CEO leading the charge into this exciting new chapter of contemporary music. Melissa Nganfounder of Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble, has consistently brought exciting and powerful ideas into existence through her work as a flutist and arts administrator. From creating a music festival (Fresh Inc) that included headshot photoshoots alongside rehearsals (how practical!) to producing Undertale Live, a videogame-like experience in the form of a concert, Ngan is constantly tending to the farthest edges of possibility both on and off the stage with care and courage.

What about being at the helm of ACO are you most looking forward to in your first full season as President and CEO?

There’s just so much to look forward to! While it might seem like making the leap to helm an orchestra during the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and social justice would be challenging timing, I honestly don’t know that I would have made a transition like this if it weren’t for this moment. This is a time when creativity is most needed in all of its forms, and ACO is an organization that embraces that kind of disruption while discovering and nurturing new creative voices.

Our upcoming season is all about creating opportunities to gather as we emerge from the sanctuary of our homes. While we’re in the business of making great music on the face of it, what we really do as performing arts organizations is bring people together through collective experiences that create human connections, memories, and meaning.

What I most look forward to is a season that explores so many different ways we can connect with one another through the music of our time. Our Fall begins with a Friends and Family chamber music event that brings together works by composers who have been close to the heart of ACO for many years. New Canons, presented in partnership with the Groupmuse Foundation, features two works by Trevor New and Ray Lustig that blend live and network performances in their construction — offering audiences the opportunity to participate in them live in intimate settings that are digitally connected to one another, or to experience them from the comfort of their homes. We return to Carnegie Hall led by new music champion Marin Alsop for Sanctuary, a program that takes its theme from Lisa Bielawa’s concerto for Jennifer Koh by the same name and features new commissions by Dai Wei and Paula Matthusen that explore sound and space. And finally, we join the Apollo Theater and National Black Theatre for The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout in May. This collaboration, centered on the African and African American transcendent ritual of the Ring Shout, is directed by NBT’s Executive Artistic Director Jonathan McCrory and conducted by Michael Morgan, and has been many years in the making. Through a full season of educational programs and community events, works by Joel Thompson, Carlos Simon, and Courtney Bryan, and new commissions by Toshi Reagon, Jason Michael Webb, and Lelund Thompson, we explore music-making as a vehicle for healing, liberation, and joy.

Featured artists in ACO's 2021-2022 season--Photo courtesy ACO

Featured artists in ACO’s 2021-2022 season–Photo courtesy ACO

Can you talk to us about the differences between programming and curating a season for Chicago audiences and New York City audiences (or perhaps they’re more similar in needs/demographics/musical taste than one might assume?)

That’s such a great question, and I might be more equipped to answer it fully after a couple of seasons in the role! What I can say is that both cities share a lot in common: a thriving new music community, a healthy mix of arts organizations and venues of every size, and a generous appetite for experimentation and collaboration.

As we all work towards reopening in new and varied ways, I’m not sure there are any norms — and no matter what city we are programming within, this is a great reminder to all of us in the field that we should be constantly listing to and creating with our audiences as we design performance experiences. If you were to ask people about their preferences right now, you’d see such a wide range — some can’t wait to come back to a concert hall with health measures in place, others might prefer to be outdoors only or in a home setting where they know others in the room, and some really love being able to access content online, especially from organizations that they couldn’t otherwise visit in-person due to cost or geography.

This season is all about creating multiple ways in, and recognizing that while digital programming may have felt like something of a limitation, ACO and many of our peers have found that the reach of our programs expanded greatly because of the open access it provides.

While we’re in the business of making great music on the face of it, what we really do as performing arts organizations is bring people together through collective experiences that create human connections, memories, and meaning.

Other than the obvious new music parallels between Fifth House Ensemble and American Composers Orchestra, is there some interesting but maybe hidden kinship or similarity between the two ensembles?

What I most grateful for is that Fifth House and ACO share so many of the same values.

At the center of it all is the belief that creative acts can transform the world. That’s the central value that organizes Fifth House’s work, and the driver that ignites ACO’s boundary-breaking approach to orchestral music.

Both organizations recognize that creativity is open to all. At Fifth House, this is expressed through multi-year residencies in social service organizations serving people transitioning from homelessness and incarceration through music improvisation and composition programs — and research conducted through a social work lens that demonstrates the effects of this work on personal transformation. At ACO, deeply rooted residencies in schools across the NYC area explore creativity, improvisation, and composition as a means of connecting to personal growth and academic achievement. Over 24+ weeks per year at each site, students create musical works rooted in their lived experiences, offering opportunities to connect art-making to personal identity and community history. We look forward to partnering with Apollo Theater and National Black Theatre’s teaching artists this season, as well.

I’m also proud to say that both organizations invest deeply in cultivating emerging talent and providing resources to the field. For many years, Fifth House has worked in partnership with universities and conservatories nationwide to redefine emerging artist training through residencies, the establishment of new entrepreneurship centers, and the summer festival, Fresh Inc.

ACO has had an extraordinary history of discovering and cultivating rising talent through EarShot, the nation’s first systemic program for cultivating relationships between orchestras and emerging composers through readings with orchestra partners nationwide each year. This work is accomplished in partnership with American Composers Forum, the League of American Orchestras, and New Music USA. At a moment when orchestras nationwide are working actively to increase representation and belonging in their programming, EarShot is a valuable pipeline; over the last two seasons, 69% of participants were BIPOC, 56% were women or nonbinary. EarShot is an entry point towards future commissions, including the Virginia B. Toulmin Orchestral Commissions Program, a program of the League of American Orchestras in partnership with ACO, which is expanding to consortium commissions this season.

We have also found that the most successful EarShot partnerships happen when partner orchestras build an experience around the readings that integrate educational and community-focused programming. Over the past few seasons, EarShot partnerships with the Sarasota, Grand Rapids, and Detroit Symphony Orchestras have demonstrated extraordinary impact from this kind of deeply-rooted work, which not only creates new relationships between orchestras and the communities they serve, but also builds essential presentation, design, and delivery skills for composers that will position them well for future residencies.

Melissa Ngan--Photo by Karjaka Studios

Melissa Ngan–Photo by Karjaka Studios

There are so many young people still working on their music degrees who already know that they want to go into music administration. What is a piece of advice or story you’d wish to share with them?

My biggest piece of advice is to challenge everything you’ve ever learned about great preparation. Those of us who were trained as performing musicians prior to, or in tandem with, a leadership career in the arts know what it feels like to strive for excellence and perfection, hitting all the marks night after night. I say this as a recovering orchestral piccolo player — there really is nowhere to hide!

The thing is that forward-thinking work and meaningful collaboration require vulnerability, experimentation, and improvisation. You’ll want to come into the room with some experience and ideas, yes — but if your ideas are so perfectly formed before you approach someone else with them, whether a co-worker or an external partner, you’re just asking them to come along. True partnership starts with a willingness to say, “I don’t know — let’s figure it out together.” In this way, you leave room for the ideas that wouldn’t have existed before your conversation in that moment.

This approach also pushes beyond the idea of creativity and innovation as a solo act. I can confidently say that none of the most meaningful projects I’ve been a part of have started with ideas that were generated solely in my own mind — they are always the product of listening, and of bringing together a group of people with wildly different backgrounds, perspectives, and expertise.

And of course: what are you enjoying most about New York City thus far?

It’s an incredible city — what’s not to love? As a multi-cultural person myself, I love how diverse the city’s population is, which means incredible food and culture at every turn. I’m also from the East Coast originally and a crazy fast talker, so the pace of life in NYC gives me great energy. But I think my favorite part of the experience is the incredible team of people I get to work with as part of the ACO family, and the wealth of partners and collaborators I’ve met since starting this role in February. The future is bright, and I’m looking forward to what we’ll build together!


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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