Thursday, November 29, 2007

Q & A: Jonah Sirota

The Chiara Quartet wrapped up their swing through the Northwest with a performance as Seattle's Tractor Tavern.  A day earlier, the group performed as part of the University of Washington's World Chamber Series.  Their cross cultural concert epitomized the worldliness of the chamber series and the commitment of a quartet intent on changing how chamber music is played.

Before heading back to Nebraska, Jonah Sirota the group's violist, graciously answered a few questions about the University of Nebraska, different audiences, and Osvaldo Golijov. 

Zach Carstensen: What brought you to the University of Nebraska?

Jonah Sirota: Nebraska founded new artists-in-residence positions for our group. It's unusual and stimulating to be able to grow a program from its start. Their commitment to building a world-class chamber music program and the great flexibility of our teaching load at the school make it a great job for a touring ensemble like us.

ZC: Before Lincoln you spent significant time in New York. What is different about the classical music and performance “scene” in Nebraska when compared to New York and other parts of the country?

JS: Well, of course New York is a major center for classical music in this country and in the world. We still spend a great deal of time there, because it is a great place to bring performances and because the audiences are so knowledgeable. Having said that, we are finding that the stereotypes about the relative "small-town" audience in Nebraska are not true. The audiences in Lincoln are numerous, supportive, and sophisticated. The per-capita cultural density is impressive there, much more than New York!

ZC: How is your approach for a concert in a club or bar different from one in a concert hall?

JS: We like to use the club performances as a chance to question the typical "classical" approach to putting together a concert. We string movements together into sets, jumping from one style-period to the next. We also strongly encourage people to clap whenever they feel so compelled. Basically, unlike in a traditional classical venue, we want a club audience to feel like their experience is not a minefield of potential embarrassing mistakes! We want the newcomer to feel incredibly welcome, and to be able to hear the music as it is, without the distraction of all the non-musical traditions of concert music.

ZC: You have said in other interviews that club audiences are as attentive if not more so than those at traditional venues. Why do you think this is case?

JS: I think it is the difference between the music compelling you to listen versus feeling compelled by the rules to just be quiet. So many people have trouble with that in a concert hall that they end up in coughing fits, or whatever. In the club, you're still going to have the cash register and the ice machine to fight, so it requires a different level of focus from both audience and performer.

ZC: Do you think venues like the Tractor Tavern reflect the historic and traditional intimacy of chamber music better than concert halls?

JS: Yeah, in many ways. Most of the music we play was certainly intended for rooms closer to the size of a club than of a concert hall. Having said that, I think we live in a special time when this music really can be accessible to all.

ZC: What was your inspiration for your Meaney Hall program which features music by composers who have their feet in different cultural worlds?

JS: This program came out of a piece we play, written for us by composer Gabriela Lena Frank. The work is called Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. (Leyendas means legends). She wrote this as her answer to Bartok's approach to composition, taking folk material from her roots, and writing them into serious and complex large-scale classical forms. We wanted to explore a program of composers who brought their cultural identity to classical forms, but managed to do so without losing one in the other. Of course that's a very subjective criteria, but that's where our own creative process came into play.

ZC: As performers, do you sometimes feel like you straddle different worlds when you perform in a club one night but a concert hall the next?

JS: Yes, but when communication and meaningful artistic experience is the goal, that kind of transcends the specific details of place, repertoire, audience make-up, etc.

ZC: Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk is being featured in your Meaney Hall performance. What is it about Golijov’s music that performers find so irresistible?

JS: He grapples with big ideas, and his music has an element of improv in it, but its in a controlled, limited sphere. Classical musicians are scared to improvise, but we want to try!

ZC: What are you listening to these days? 

JS: Simone Dinnerstein's Goldberg Variations, the band Godspeed You Black Emperor (who might as well be a classical new-music group) and the Beatles again, after a long hiatus.

No comments: