Jenny Live in D.C. at WPAS

Just being around Jenny Bilfield,
the new president and CEO of the
Washington Performing Arts Society,
you get the sense she’s the kind of
person that can fill and command a
room, whether it’s a board room, a concert hall
stage, or a small downtown D.C. coffee shop
on this occasion.

Although she’s been around less than a
year, Bilfield, the artistic director of Stanford
Live at Stanford University in California since
2006, she already sounds like a Washington
D.C. booster. That, you suspect, comes out
of her deep appreciation and sense of place. A
New Yorker, she acknowledged that her work
and time at Stanford changed and enriched her,
and that’s exactly where she’s coming from
in her approach to her new job—taking over
the reigns of an organization with a long (48
years) history as a premier world arts presenter
and arts educator. She comes across as accessible,
really smart, unpretentious, and probably
knows more about most things you’d care to
talk about in conversation.

“This is such a terrific, unique place,”
she said. “We [composer husband Joel Philip
Friedman, 12-year-old daughter Hallie, a rescue
dog and a few parrots) live right next to the zoo.
We can walk to the zoo.” This is said with all
the verve of a genuine enthusiast, a woman
who can generate enthusiasm for just about
anything. She is seen as, has a reputation for,
and talks a lot about risk taking. In terms of
classical music, for instance, she’s known for
a passionate commitment to encouraging new
work and compositions, in addition to holding
fast to established artists and work which is the
hallmark of most presenters and their seasons.
“If you look at this year’s Stanford Live
season, some of which I’m responsible for, if
you run across some names that you may not
be familiar with, I’m probably responsible,”
she said.

She seems to have gotten a handle on the
unique qualities of Washington pretty quickly.
“You have a rich and diverse performance art
world, so many venues from the big to the
small, it’s full of opportunities to do many
unique things. You have a city that’s rich in
neighborhoods too, and it’s full of gifted artists
that work and perform right here. You can draw
from that. You have unique opportunities for
arts education. You have the embassies and
the whole international framework to draw on.”
Reginald Van Lee, executive vice president
of Booz Allen Hamilton and chairman of
WPAS’s Board of Directors said that “Jenny is
a visionary with a proven track record of success
who is passionate about the arts and their
role in the community. She is the right person
to lead WPAS’s new strategic plan and build
upon our core strengths: rich, educational and
community engagement programs, the nurturing
of young talent, and presenting the finest
artist of our classical, jazz, dance, and world
music performances.”

Upon the announcement of her appointment
in January, Bilfield said that “WPAS is an
essential, deeply valued anchor of the Capital
region’s cultural scene and has earned a sterling
reputation as a premier American arts presenter,
and an engine of high-impact arts education
programs and alliances. I feel the same rush of
energy and optimism that I experienced when I
joined Stanford University in 2006.”

That rush, that energy is on full display,
when she’s touting the new WPAS season,
tellingly built around the theme of “The City
Is Our Stage,” the neighborhoods in the city,
the diversity, the opportunities for expansion
and new partnerships. “We hope to engage
audiences and artists for the long term, and
get people to participate in the arts, not just by
going but by being a part of the whole,” she
said. “Audience here are very committed, very
smart and intelligent, and receptive, I think, to
new forms and ideas.”

At Stanford, she transformed Stanford Live,
from being a university presenter to a producing
organization along the lines and size of
WPAS, and was also instrumental in bringing
the vision for the Bing Concert Hall to fruition.

“The challenges here are not the same,” she
said. “WPAS exists in a unique place and is
a unique organization, with unique opportunities.”
She provided a hint of how she might
approach her new tasks, in a kind of farewell
interview with the San Jose Mercury News.
“Ultimately,” she said then, “specificity and
sense of place are central for me. My litmus test
is that our vision, mission and programs need to
reflect the unique DNA of the organization and
its community. …Washington Performing Arts
Society has had a significant impact upon the
cultural life of Washington D.C., from nurturing
new talent to substantive arts education,
and serving as a destination for outstanding
performers at venues around the city.”

It’s obvious that she’s already gotten the
vibe of the city’s cultural DNA. It would
appear that it matches hers.

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