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Hanna Arie-Gaifman – collaborative workings at the 92 Street Y

As the Director of the 92nd Street Y’s Tisch Center for the Arts, overseeing the 92Y’s concert series and Unterberg Poetry Center endowed by the Tisch Family, Hanna Arie-Gaifman indulges her deep love and knowledge of literature and music. “I came to the 92Y in 2000,“ shares Gaifman, sitting at her small desk, loaded with papers, messages, and catalogues, in her office on the 4th floor of the Y.  The building she works in inhabits a Lexington Avenue city block between 92nd and 93rd street, and represents a staple of its surrounding community, as well as a buzzing cultural center.  “It is an amazing combination of everything I love, in its presentation of excellence in literature and music. It has a long history and tradition of being true to itself, carrying on its own integrity with an honest search for changing responsibilities within its community and reaching out beyond its margins, to society at large.”

Having studied piano at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, Gaifman certainly could have considered a career in music performance herself, but did not, feeling that her skills could allow her to make a bigger difference in other areas of the music field. It is precisely her talent for bringing concepts and cultures together that has shone through the many different roles she held as music presenter, long before making her impact at the 92Y.

As dean of the Mozart Academy in Prague, director of artistic management and international relations of the Czech Philharmonic, and director of Prague’s annual Musica Judaica Festival from 1993 -2000, Gaifman showed her skill for international cooperation and management, as well as her keen talent for enriching cultural life in post-communist Czechoslovakia.

“I was able to change some of the Czech Republic’s liaisons with the Western world in general, and in particular change some of the perceptions, for example for what the needs of the performers were– still today, the Czech Philharmonic is one of the most underpaid orchestras in the world, ” she explains. As director, Gaifman was able to bring in some under-writing banks for additional funding to the Philharmonic, and she was able to procure the eminent conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy for the illustrious group.

“My friends started Musica Judaica,” says Gaifman, whose mother languages were Czech and German, then Hebrew, “and it just made sense for me to run the festival. I was greatly inspired by the new spirit that swept through the cultural institutions that had existed before and had started to flourish once again, reorganized.” She had always had a neck for the synthesis between general culture and music-culture – but also a great love for reviving Jewish cultural life, which Prague had been such a particular stronghold of.

“I have always presented music, since I am in my early twenties, starting in 1975 with the Jerusalem Festival” (which became the Israel Festival in 1978), says Gaifman. At the 92Y, Gaifman finds herself a part of something that its founders, the German Jewish entrepreneurs who started the “Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association,” had set out to gain in a quest for excellence, and genuine concern for the state of the world: “We hope to present concerts with special content or present artists we believe in, who are not necessarily presented on New York’s stages, enough. We take a look at different Jewish cultural aspects and present a variety of themes within the rich tradition of content oriented programs, often represented through interdisciplinary art forms. But we also just have great performers, masters at their instrument, and …we do have one of the concert halls with the best acoustics in New York City, seating 917 attentive, often enthusiastic listeners.”

Gaifman’s programs have gained a reputation for excellence in both performance and content. One of her specialties is crafting programs that transform genres into interdisciplinary exchanges, with a unique penchant for bending borders between literature and music–both of Gaifman’s great passions.

Combined performances under the same roof in a community-friendly environment like the Y helps restore meaning to the arts as the building blocks of culture and community. It takes experience, vision, and the kind of hands-on enthusiasm Gaifman provides when she collaborates closely with her artists, to create the extraordinary programming apparent in her classical concert series.

Gaifman’s expertise in both the fields of literature and music is impressive. She has earned undergraduate degrees in Russian studies and English literature at Hebrew University, a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literature from Stanford University, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Hebrew University.  She has taught at University of California, Berkeley and New York University.

Gaifman frequently makes use of her many language and people skills, dialoguing with her audience, but she notes that her ability to fluently converse in English, German, French, Hebrew, Czech and Russian has been an indispensable help in being able to meaningfully understand many of the international artists she brings in.

“I enjoy tremendously creating these programs with a wonderful team. I am always looking for artists I can work with together, interchanging ideas. The more interesting artists will have a strong vision of what they want to present perhaps, but there is always a lot of teamwork necessary if you want to present a program at the 92Y. We have our own input and agendas and have to be able to communicate well together.” She goes on to describe the intimacy of the planning and performance process she went through with the renowned Tokyo String Quartet, which will soon split ways, and plans to hold one of their final performances at the 92Y on January 26th with a program, which will include Lera Auerbach’s Farewell, which was commissioned by the 92Y. The quartet maintained a residency at the 92Y for ten years.  “They called me their fifth member, since I always had so much input, discussing the programs,” she laughs.

Now in her 13th year, Gaifman’s programming for the classical music series has moved away from a potpourri of material towards more directed programs that fulfill individual needs, like the commissioning and premiering of new works like Lera Auerbach’s aforementioned piece. Her vision grows with expanding possibilities. At the moment, Gaifman feels that, with the artists’ permission, the recordings made of all the Y’s performances for documentation purposes could be put to good use if they were released into the public domain. The last recording the Y actually participated in co-producing and releasing was Claudio Arrau’s last live performance at the 92Y in 1976.  “Some events are already being broadcasted by NPR and WWFM. But I would love to have a ‘live’ concert hall, with live-streaming of all events,” she says. Gaifman manages to sustain her broad and open-minded view while simultaneously focusing on minute programming details. She tirelessly searches for new ways to expand her audiences’ will to explore, and attract new audiences. Gaifman’s desire to expand will most certainly include branching out into new locations, incorporating downtown performances into her programs’ near future.

Gaifman plans well ahead, curating around forty classical and forty popular concerts a year, and mapping out the majority of events around a year and a half in advance.  She negotiates times and coordinates her programming with a wide range of educational and outreach programs that share the space. Her personal participation is remarkable, as she attends almost all of the many events that she plans.  She says of her avid patronage: “if I don’t enjoy it, why should the audience?”

On February 11th, the 92Y will present one of Gaifman’s favorite cross-illuminating literary and musical events that she has planned.  Pianist Jeremy Denk, who is a passionate performer of the work of Charles Ives and an ardent published writer with an outstanding blog, ThinkDenk, will perform sections of Ives’ transcendental movement of his Concord Sonata, famously depicting historical literary figures like Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and Hawthorne; his performance will be accompanied by readings from these writers’ works.

“For me, it is about serving curious people, the quality that will win them over to enjoy culture and experience actively. Already when I taught literature, I was thinking to myself, if I just attract the interest of one curious student and stir a passion for the literature I love, I have made a difference. Here at the 92Y is the one place in the world, that focuses on the both worlds I love and understand–music and literature–and where I can make that difference, and contribute.” Ilona Oltuski