Nadia Sirota: Lyrical Attraction

“I just really like music,” admits violist Nadia Sirota with an intensity that explodes the meaning of this otherwise simple sentiment. “I really like just trying to communicate to the audience what I think the composer means, and maybe I’m pretty eccentric and aggressive about it.”

That said, she makes no apologies for it. There is a visceral and infectious level of enthusiasm that she brings to her performances and commissioning activities that is also evident in her commitment to her hosting duties at the online new music radio station Q2. “I’m actually not shy about this,” she says matter-of-factly. “I have a weirdly corporate mission statement which I’m comfortable expressing which is that everything I do—and it’s a lot of varied things—is in the service of bringing new music to new audiences.”

As the child of an intensely musical family, the seeds of this commitment were planted early (though the commitment to practicing and doing the work required to support it didn’t come until much later, she fully admits). “There was actually no point in my life when I wasn’t going to be a musician,” she says of her early years. “There was a period of time when I thought I was going to be a composer, a period of time when I thought I was going to be a conductor. I thought I was going to be a singer. I tried to be a pianist for, like, two months when I was five. So there was no point at which I thought I wasn’t going to be a musician, although what kind of musician that would be was sort of up in the air.”

As she cruised into her teenage years, however, the support of a great teacher and the experience of attending the Baltimore School for the Arts helped clarify her musical path, especially when it came to switching from the violin to the viola. The move shifted her musical life from a place where she was “playing all Kreisler, all the time” in order to perfect certain technical acrobatics over to an instrument and course of study that involved “dark, brooding, Hindemith stuff.”

With the viola, she felt at home. “I can actually sing the entire range of my instrument,” Sirota explains, “so there’s something about the viola being in the range that my voice is also in and having that kind of vocal expressive quality to it that I think really, really appeals since that’s the first way that I figured out how to make music.”

Though when chatting with her now it’s hard to imagine this high-octane creative personality spending six years in “a very conservative institution” like Juilliard, she says the training was really good for her. In addition to laying the groundwork for future projects and collaborations, like her long association with the composer Nico Muhly, she was able to test and hone the musician she was to become in a place “where you’re trying to figure out how to be correct and be as ‘good’ as possible, for lack of a better term. You’re striving toward some kind of ideal which is really, really complicated to figure out.” In the process of taking those skills and moving forward into her professional career, however, “I’ve discovered more and more that the reason that people want to work with me or the reason that composers are interested in writing for me is because I don’t play…a sanitized ideal of what the viola is supposed to sound like. I play like I play, and I make phrases the way that I do. And I sort of go over the top a lot of the time and I try to be very communicative and all these kinds of things. I think that’s what makes me an interesting player, honesty, but it took me a while to get there.”

One place she has ended up is deep into fruitful collaborative relationships with composers, a good portrait of which is available on her first solo album, First Things First, which consists of works she commissioned to play herself. It’s a strategy she finds creatively invigorating. “You don’t have the burden of 250 years of performance practice, it’s just whatever I want to do,” Sirota admits. “In a way commissioning all these pieces is very, very selfish, but I love it. And it just means that I feel super free to figure out what I think the music is doing and just try to communicate that as clearly as possible to the audience.”