It’s inscribed right on the front of the building that Tilles Center is Long Island’s leading performing arts center.
“I’m not here to be a caretaker,” says William Biddle, Tilles’ first new executive director in three decades. “Tilles Center has been very successful, but everything has a life cycle. What worked yesterday may not tomorrow.”
Biddle’s first full day on the job was Jan. 4, but he’s been transitioning into his new post since attending the center’s annual gala in October, which doubled as the farewell to Elliott Sroka, who retired after 29 years at the helm. Biddle’s wife, Carmen, and their three sons remain in Virginia until the end of the school year. They’ve been house-hunting in Nassau County.
Biddle doesn’t envision immediate changes at Tilles — aside from revamping the dressing rooms. The current season was booked by his predecessor, though Biddle added an April concert by jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, part of his mission to find attractions “that skew a bit younger without forgetting our bread-and-butter audience,” he says. “We will continue, for instance, to present national and international symphony orchestras.”
That includes the Orchestra National de France Saturday night. But, reflecting Tilles’ diverse offerings, the classical music concert is preceded Friday by the Japanese ensemble Drum Tao. On Tuesday, Tilles resumes its On Screen/In Person film series.
Variety was a trademark of Biddle’s previous reign as founding director of Ferguson Center for the Arts at Christopher Newport University in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
While Newport is smaller — about 5,000 students to LIU Post’s 8,000 — the arts center in the populous Newport News-Norfolk region is comparable to Tilles with a 1,700 concert hall and 450-seat theater. Tilles’ main stage seats 2,200 and Hillwood Recital Hall’s capacity is 490. Each center’s annual budget is $4 million to $5 million.
In Virginia, Biddle says, he found that while his core audience tended to be 50-plus, their tastes weren’t always traditional. These days, classic rock attracts baby boomers who are, let’s face it, more and more “seniors.”
“We had Daryl Hall and John Oates recently,” Biddle recalls. “I said you guys are the new Glenn Miller Orchestra.”
This weekend, Biddle will be scouting for next season, attending the first production of the back-from-bankruptcy New York City Opera at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “There aren’t many touring opera companies left,” he says, “and most of them are park-and-bark — stand there and belt out an aria. Just because you think it’s good to book opera doesn’t mean you sacrifice good quality.”
Among the changes he foresees is turning Tilles’ window-on-the-campus Atrium — usually reserved for receptions — into a cabaret-style jazz room and starting a Hillwood lecture series. “I’m even thinking,” he says, “of using the roof for outdoor shows,” adding that he plans to make Tilles a year-round venue instead of largely taking summers off.
Jones Beach Theater without the ocean?