Nadia Sirota, it must be said, is having one hell of a year. As a violist, she is known globally as a stellar advocate for new music and living composers, no few of whom have been inspired directly by her expansive technique and expressive depth. She’s a successful recording artist, a dedicated collaborator who plays regularly in the renowned group yMusic, and a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster for her series Meet the Composer, presently on hiatus.
Lately, though, Sirota has enjoyed fresh adventures remarkable even by her own standard. Over the summer she played to packed arenas when yMusic participated in Paul Simon’s farewell tour, performing new chamber-music arrangements of Simon’s songs, and helped to make history when two sold-out Madison Square Garden shows led up to Simon’s grand finale: a concert presented in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, for an audience estimated at 30 thousand fans.
She’d barely had time to catch her breath before springing into action with her newest adventure: serving as the New York Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis Creative Partner for the 2018–19 season. In that role, Sirota is hosting two new contemporary-music concert series: Nightcap, six intimate cabaret-style presentations programmed by composers whose works are featured during the current Philharmonic season, and Sound ON, three concerts curated by Sirota and meant to showcase musicians from the orchestra’s ranks, while also reinforcing the season’s three programmatic pillars: “The Art of Andriessen,” “New York Stories: Threads of Our City,” and “Music of Conscience.”
The first Nightcap event on Sept. 28 showed just how far Sirota and her colleagues are willing to venture in positioning living composers not only as innovative creators, but also as intelligent, curious people with broad, diverse interests. Conrad Tao, who earlier in the evening had prefaced a Bruckner symphony with an ear-opening “overture” commissioned for the occasion, was featured as a pianist, his best-known guise.
But he also dug deep into electronics, at one point scrubbing contact microphones through his close-cropped hair to produce visceral noise like you might hear at the Silent Barn or the Ende Tymes festival. His rubbery synth-pop transmutations, meanwhile, might have shared an NNA Tapes CMJ Marathon showcase with Ryan Power and Autre Ne Veut at Death By Audio. Caleb Teicher, a percussive dancer added rhythmic figurations to a Bruckner motet played by Tao on piano; elsewhere; the astonishing vocalist Charmaine Lee offered free-improv flits and gurgles, breathy ASMR stimulation, bells, bird calls, and bubbles blown in a drinking glass, before singing simply and gorgeously in “Heavy Rain,” a Tao original.
Sound ON, which debuts on Oct. 7 at 3pm, promises a completely different experience: a program of works by Louis Andriessen, presently the focus of a two-week Philharmonic celebration, and by two of his students, Martijn Padding and Vanessa Lann. Jaap van Zweden – who provided an ebullient introduction for the Nightcap premiere and was visibly delighted with what transpired – will be on hand to conduct one of Andriessen’s most significant pieces, Symphony for Open Strings.
Sirota recently took time out from her frenetic schedule to chat with National Sawdust Log via telephone from Talahassee, where she and her yMusic colleagues were collaborating with student composers at Florida State University. She talked about how her Philharmonic assignment had come about, what sets Nightcap and Sound ON apart, and how she continues to find time for her own musical adventures.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: The first question I’ve got is the most obvious: how did your new relationship with the New York Philharmonic materialize?
NADIA SIROTA: It was actually pretty out of the blue, from my perspective. I think the actual connection is that Isaac Thompson, the new VP of Artistic Planning that Deborah Borda brought in, saw the Festival of Contemporary Music that I programmed at Tanglewood a couple of summers ago and really enjoyed it. Deborah and Isaac were talking about new-music options for the orchestra, and Isaac mentioned me. We had a couple of conversations that were just about the next season of the Phil before they were like, you know what, why don’t we bring you on to work on these two new series? We had a few conversations before it was really a thing, but it’s sort of Tanglewood’s fault.
Did you have any sense at all that they were looking for someone to shore up Jaap van Zweden’s familiarity with newer American music, as someone who doesn’t know his track record might assume?
I don’t know that it necessarily has to do with shoring up knowledge, to be honest. The thing that’s been really exciting for me is that he is really open to a lot of stuff. I definitely know of him as somebody who is renowned for classical interpretation, and he’s super killer at that. But absolutely everything that we’ve spoken about that’s sort of weird or crazy or out of the box, he’s very enthusiastic about. It’s really cool; his reputation and his interests and openness are not necessarily one and the same.
I think that it’s interesting, Deborah coming from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and how completely daring and nuts and exciting their programming has been over the past decade or so… the New York Philharmonic most definitely does not have a reputation for doing that stuff. I’m pretty comfortably sure that in the 18 years I’ve been living in New York, there’ve been a handful – maybe three to five – New York Philharmonic events that I’ve been really, really pumped about from a new-music perspective. Whereas when Isaac and Deborah first contacted me and told me what they had in store for the ’18-’19 season, I almost fell out of my chair—what they had already programmed was so exciting from a commissions and contemporary music perspective. So it’s not like they brought me on to inject contemporary music into the season that they had. Deborah and Isaac and Jaap had already come up with a bunch of killer commissions—Conrad Tao, for example, was completely Jaap’s idea. I don’t think I was brought in to put a Band-Aid over something that wasn’t inherently awesome… in fact, I think the season they had built was inherently awesome.
The cool thing from my perspective about these two series is that in the past, the contemporary music series – and even, in fact, the chamber-music series that exists outside of the Philharmonic’s subscription concerts – have felt slightly unrelated. Or maybe they were a little related, but I haven’t really seen those connections clearly. These two series are so directly related to the programming of the subscription series. The Sound ON series, those are three concerts inspired by the three pillars of the season, and the Nightcap [concerts] are all inspired by the Philharmonic concert that just happened. To me it’s there’s so much exciting new music stuff happening that it’s spilling out to these other halls, not that these other halls are picking up the slack for the season, if that makes sense.
You anticipated my next question, about what differentiates the two series.
There’s another thing there, too, which is that the Sound ON series features the musicians of the Philharmonic, whereas the Nightcap series features musicians from outside of the fold. So for me, the Nightcap series is a time for us to really dig deeper into the brains of the composers whose music is featured on the subscription series. I love conversation; that’s a thing that I just think is illuminating and interesting and great. One of the advantages living composers have over dead composers is that they can speak about their music and their process and themselves… you know, if we could dig up Chopin and talk to him, wouldn’t that be interesting? So I want to take advantage of the fact that these people are alive, and can advocate for themselves and tell us what was in their mind when they were doing this stuff. The purpose of the Nightcap series is to dig a little deeper and just show these people as humans.
I felt the first Nightcap we did with Conrad was such a great example. If you had gone to that Bruckner and Tao performance without having access to the Nightcap, who knows what kind of person you might’ve thought Conrad was. Just having this deeper look into this incredibly creative person, who is such a polymath and has such creative and interesting ways to think about music and electronics, and works with dance and improvisation—that just paints such a more glittering and interesting picture of that composer than having simply listened to his intro to the Bruckner Eighth would have revealed.
You’ve got that one under your belt now. Are you satisfied with the way it went? Are there things that you would have done differently? You almost certainly are the very first Philharmonic spokesperson in history to drop an F-bomb on a hot mic.
What are you going to do? I don’t feel bad about that. I think it was 11:30pm, end of set, and I think we’re going to use HBO rules here. I think that show went great. What I can tell you is I think each one of these is going to feel drastically different from each other. Some of them are going to feel more rhetorical and less performance based. For example, I think that in the Andriessen one that’s coming up on October 13, he’s going to play some recordings of stuff that he likes. There will be plenty of live performances in that context as well, but there’s also going to be just sort of our talking about stuff, and his playing recordings.
The third Nightcap [Nov. 10] is going to actually be with Gabriel Kahane, and that’s because these series were scheduled before we knew exactly what they were—sometimes you just have to make decisions. This is a Beethoven and Schubert program [by the Philharmonic], and we thought what Schubert and Gabe have in common is this idea that they’re both songwriters who also work in concert-music formats. So we’re going to sort of explore the intersection between song and concert music in a way that’s going to make perfect sense.
To go back to Sound ON for a second, I’m really hoping that those will be a showcase for the performers as much as for the composers we’re featuring—and by that I mean I want to speak to the performers Sometimes performers seem like these kind of voiceless conduits. And to me, that performerly perspective is really weird, it’s a really strange place to occupy—this sort of medium for getting some kind of artistic idea out to the audience. So I’m hoping that these will be as much about the performers as the composers and the incredible music that they’re writing. We’re speaking to the same principles the subscription season was hung on, so there will be a lot of resonance and rhyme there.
But also, for example, in the “Going Dutch” program, the first program this Sunday, we’re going to be playing the Andriessen Symphony for Open Strings, which is a strange piece that requires that everyone tune their instruments wrong. And I want to know what the Phil players think about that. Honestly, I think that’s an interesting perspective, to sort of break all that stuff apart. The Martijn Padding piece requires that the violinist use a rusty paperclip on his strings. I want to know more about that stuff. Sometimes you can go to these concerts, listen to pieces, and if you don’t read the program notes carefully – because sometimes it’s written in a way that doesn’t make you want to read it carefully – you might not know any of this information. So I’m hoping to share with the audience a little bit of what as a performer I go into a concert knowing, so that they can hopefully share a more similar experience to the performers.
My goal for all of these series is to present this music that I love in a way that’s comprehensible to as many people in that room as possible—I want as many people in that room as possible to “get it,” quote unquote, you know. That’s why all the talking, that’s why all the conversation, that’s why we’re organizing this stuff in this way. For me, I feel like that’s a quick way to get this to work. And hopefully we’re striking a tone that is not a lecture-recital, that is not a pre-concert talk, that feels like something else. And I believe very strongly that that kind of communication about what’s going on on stage can really work and can really bring people in, in a genre that has sometimes felt really alienating for outsiders.
So now turning away from this for just a moment, I wonder… you still are yourself a very prominent performing artist, recording artist, etcetera. How do you strike a balance? Where do you reserve time for the things you do for you?
Do you mean as a performer, where do I sort of find time for that, basically?
I mean, I… I’m just trying to literally fit 20 tons of shit into a 10-ton bag. I’m not sure necessarily that I’m doing this in a same way right now—especially because the Paul Simon tour came on, and obviously it was an amazing opportunity. So that also had to happen this summer, and that was incredible. But right now I’m just working as hard as humanly possible and then I’m going to take a break around the holidays [laughs] and we’ll see what happens.
The Paul Simon thing must have been just a real trip to be a part of.
It was cool to walk out on stage for, you know, 17,000 people, night after night. That was a really fascinating and unique and different perspective. And I honestly like to think that all of this work that we’re doing, all of these different contexts, is really proselytizing. It’s getting this sound of classical chamber music out to a very large swath of people. There’s a moment in that Paul Simon tour that we just did where it was just a little yMusic and Paul set, and we played two-and-a-half pieces, just us and him. And really, it’s all chamber music. It’s really just deep chamber music.
I feel like we sometimes underestimate the public. We have this idea that classical music is something that only very refined people and people who have incredible training can possibly enjoy, and I just don’t find that to be true. I think that attitude has somehow iced us out, in some ways, from a larger community of art lovers. When you think about how many people will go to a contemporary art museum and see a new artist’s exhibit, or will go to a new play: contemporary music can absolutely share the same type of listener as all of those other art forms. So for me, doing this kind of work across… it’s not really “across the aisle,” because there’s no aisle. But, you know, just playing for different types of audiences, different sizes of audiences in different types of venues, has really shifted the way that I feel like we can present things. And when you hear a great story told by Paul Simon onstage about his life and history, that’s every bit the same thing I’m trying to do with getting Conrad to tell a story about his life and history.
That’s a very holistic perspective. And there are even more ties when you dig down to the level of, you know, a couple of those Paul Simon arrangements were by Bryce Dessner, and now yMusic is touring this big Bryce Dessner piece that you’re bringing to the Baryshnikov Arts Center on October 15.
That’s right. For me personally, as the person, the violist, the broadcaster, whatever you want to call me, Nadia Sirota, the real barometer, the real metric I use by which to decide whether or not something feels like it’s something that I need to be doing is, does this help to get classical music out to a broader audience? And if the answer is yes, then it makes sense for me to do it, makes sense for me to say yes.
So I’m playing Nico Muhly’s Viola Concerto with the Louisiana Philharmonicin November. I’m playing a Nico piece with Axiom on a program with Nico and Corigliano at Juilliard in October. And it’s all about bringing this incredible stuff, these incredible minds out, and getting this music out to as many people as possible—whether that be by solo performance, performance in a classical context with yMusic, performance in a pop context with yMusic, broadcasting a radio show that’s aimed at a wider audience, or curating some series for the New York Philharmonic that hopefully will get some different types of people through the door.
Nadia Sirota hosts the New York Philharmonic’s first Sound ON program at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room on Oct. 7 at 3pm, and the second Nightcap program at the Kaplan Penthouse on Oct. 13 at 10:30pm; nyphil.org
yMusic plays music by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and others at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Oct. 15 at 7:30pm; bacnyc.org
Steve Smith is director of publications for National Sawdust and editor of National Sawdust Log. He previously worked as a freelance writer and critic for The New York Times, and as an editor for the Boston Globe and Time Out New York; www.nightafternight.com