A Harvard conductor and a cool contemporary musician

by Victoria Aschheim

Derek Bermel is one of the hottest composers in the country, and his "Soul Garden" is featured in brilliantly programmed concerts that include Janacek, Bach and Beethoven at 3 p.m. on Saturday December 4 at First Parish Congregational Church in Wakefield, and at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, December 5 at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. Harvard's Federico Cortese (the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra's Music Director) will conduct Nadia Sirota and the New England String Orchestra; Maestro Cortese will also lead an interactive discussion 45 minutes prior to each performance. Currently Artist-in-Residence at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, Bermel -- who has a BA and DMA from Yale and the University of Michigan -- is one of the most in-demand composers on the scene today. Sirota, a Juilliard-trained violist, is made-to-order to perform Bermel's composition. Fluent in classical and popular music, Sirota is a strong advocate and interpreter of new music, including that of Nico Muhly, Marcos Balter and Judd Greenstein. New York-based music critic Alex Ross '90, has called Sirota's programs on Q2 of WQXR, "radio we can believe in." Here is an interview with Nadia Sirota on the occasion of her performance under Maestro Cortese's baton.

Why did you go into arts media in addition to performing, and how is it an extension of or another facet of your musical voice and taste?

I kind of slipped backwards into radio. After a classic post-graduate financial freak-out, I found myself ripping CDs into WNYC's database, essentially organizing their iTunes library, or whatever, and was happy enough with what was pretty mindless, flexible labor. After a month or so, my boss got curious about on-air possibilities, and I hosted a succession of shows, eventually landing my current gig, a 4-hour weekday show devoted to Contemporary Music called Nadia Sirota on Q2. While this gig initially came as something of a surprise, I am really beginning to find my voice, in more ways than one. Not to sound too corporate, but pretty early on I developed a sort of personal mission statement: I really want to promote Classical Music to new audiences through the medium of New Music. While "being a radio host" isn't in there, having this show as a platform definitely helps me promote new works in an interesting way, and thus it makes perfect sense for me to be doing radio in addition to performing. The kind of careful curation I do has also found a lot of resonance in concert programming, and vice versa. Actually, there tons of analogues between radio and live concerts. Also differences. Anyway, it's kind of great to do both.

In Parallels and Paradoxes by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, Barenboim talks about "courage" as being of prime importance in music: "courage to be completely uncompromising...to have understood the reality...understood the difficulties of doing it, and then...really going all out...go the precipice...and not make a crescendo only halfway." How do you have courage in your musical life?

Here's the thing: I am not shy. Not at all. That sort of "courageous" part of music-making was always step one for me, in fact, I've had to do more work refining and chilling out my crescendi in the name of good taste than the opposite. Really, if my life has required courage, it's mostly in the "hallmarks of adulthood and financial success" category. Getting an orchestra job means stability, a retirement plan, vacations, stuff like that. I play in a bunch of New Music groups, commission and premiere new viola works, and tour with composers and bands and whoever will have me. These are things that I really, really love doing, but they aren't exactly lucrative. Yet. I have hope. Call me courageous.

In his 1935 article "The Phenomenon of Stravinsky," Marc Blitzstein wrote: "Every great musical form has crystallized the culture -- the aesthetic, spiritual, ethnic, economic facts -- in which it occurred...In Stravinsky...a music of order is close to the reality of his time...But you can also feel that his wish to divorce music from other streams of life is symtomatic of an escape from reality." Does this observation hold true for the new music you play today?

I will say that I am super pumped about what is going on in music right now. A lot of what's being made is really good. It's also appealing, it synthesizes cultural elements (I mean media, pop music, whatever, culture). What else... I mean, there is less of a sense right now than there was perhaps twenty years ago that a composer must be writing either for The Academy or for The People. I think a lot of people are writing what they want without serious regard for being either smart enough of accessible enough. Choosing which notes to write is hard enough without worrying about your peers politicizing them. So that's nice!

Describe today's New York music scene, particularly the Indie rock and classical scene, your work with alternative/rock music groups, Ymusic (combining classical and pop music worlds), and the repertoire you present at Le Poisson Rouge.

There's a lot of stuff going on in New York. I can only begin to describe my little corner. When people talk about "audience-building," and "education," a lot of the time it's code for "elementary school music classes." Which, I mean, that's great, don't get me wrong. But there's a huge generation of people that didn't have elementary school music classes, and they happen to be my age. They are also ravenously devouring the whole entire internet everyday and all have a favorite contemporary literary fiction writer, painter, and art rock band. So yeah, these people. The corner of the New York scene I inhabit serves intellectually and culturally curious young people. I think people are really open to new things if they have a point of access. In terms of Classical Music, this access point is often a band. Say someone is into Sigur Rós, they may get into Jónsi, the lead singer, who just released a solo record. The arrangements for that record were done by Nico Muhly, a young composer. If they like Nico, the next thought is, "Who is he influenced by?" Then, "Who is Stravinsky?" Then, "Who is Ravel." And so on and so forth. It's a linear, internetty kind of thinking. What's neat is that performers and composers are thinking in this way too, and all of a sudden I've found that my musical life includes working with a ton of bands and songwriters in addition to composers and quartets. Composers are making song arrangements, yes, but songwriters are also writing chamber music. yMusic, one of the groups I play with, is dedicated to this type of interaction. We are a backing band-for-hire, old-fashioned new music ensemble, and concert music development team. We work with composers of all backgrounds. If they are good. LPR is a venue that sort of lives in this interstitial musical area. They put on really ambitious programs of all sorts of music in a boozy environment. For a lot of people new to Classical Music, this is a way less intimidating space in which to experience a concert than say a church or a concert hall.

A 2006 article in the New York Times quoted you as saying that The Academy/Ensemble ACJW (of Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School) "appealed to (your) definition of musician as entrepreneur." Would you reprise your definition of musician as entrepreneur for us, and has it evolved since 2006?

If you are interested in being a musician who does not play in an orchestra, you pretty much have to be an entrepreneur. One of the great things about being born into a super dysfunctional system (the Classical Music Establishment, or whatever) is that you don't bemoan its desecration, you work around it. Or fix it. Or start over. Knowing how to raise money and organize the percussion rental and how to do some PR things is hugely important these days. Nothing is more attractive than a person who doesn't complain, he just fixes stuff. That's how I'd define entrepreneurship, I guess. I don't think that's changed since 2006.

In an interview for "My Ears Are Open," your advice for young musicians was to preserve and strengthen their unique musical voice while in conservatory and to champion new music by their composer peers? Do you have any different advice for student musicians in the university setting, like Harvard?

I think that advice applies to anyone, really. Take advantage of school! People will write you stuff for free! You have tons of like boobams at your disposal and a lot of willing participants for whatever it is you want to do. Do things you want to do.

What does the future hold for you musically and project-wise?

I want to commission more stuff and do more solo touring. yMusic's recording a CD soon. I'm recording a second album in a year. My other group ACME is working with a ton of awesome composers this season. More radio, more teaching. More travel. More stuff!

What are you looking forward to about performing under the baton of Maestro Cortese?

This is a really fun piece! There's a lot of room for personality and quirk in Derek's writing, and Maestro Cortese is a lovely and sensitive collaborator on that front. Also, how great to play in such a bath of string sound!

[Caption: Violist Nadia Sirota (Image: http://www.newamsterdamrecords.com)]