Wednesday , July 17 2024
Ian Niederhoffer and Parlando
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay

Exclusive Interview: Parlando Founder and Music Director Ian Niederhoffer Previews October 4 ‘Odysseys’ Concert, with Music of Tchaikovsky, Jimmy Lopez, Joey Roukens

The New York City-based chamber orchestra Parlando aims to bridge the gap between audience and performer.

That might sound a bit self-evident – doesn’t every artist and ensemble want to connect with listeners?

But for Parlando and its founder and music director Ian Niederhoffer, “bridging the gap” means something special: truly direct communication, and engagement in creative and fun ways.

Niederhoffer engages with the audience before each concert, explicating the theme of the program. The selections vary widely, but each concert’s theme connects standard works with new or underrepresented music. The upcoming “Odysseys” concert, October 4 at Merkin Hall, brings together two contemporary pieces, Jimmy Lopez’s Guardian of the Horizon (PDF) and Joey Roukens’ Visions at Sea, with Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence.

Ian Niederhoffer of Parlando
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay

Just as he does with audiences, Niederhoffer was happy to speak with us about Parlando and how he pursues the orchestra’s goal “to make all classical music feel familiar to the audience, no matter the composer, era, or style.”

The three pieces on the “Odysseys” program are all scored for strings, but otherwise quite different: the modernistic Guardian of the Horizon by Peruvian composer Jimmy López is highly energetic; the pictorial Visions at Sea by Dutch composer Joey Roukens is contemplative, with a mystical feel, punctuated by riotous sea shanties; and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. What’s the theme? Do these all represent “odysseys” of one kind or another?

That’s what I’ll explain at the concert! But for a sneak peak, yes, each of the pieces represents various journeys, each with its own trials and tribulations. We usually use the word “odyssey” to describe any long, difficult, adventurous journey, but The Odyssey isn’t just a journey, but specifically a journey back home. What I’ll be explaining at the concert is how that process of journey and return is portrayed in the music itself.

You have a “chili pepper system” of rating pieces by level of listening difficulty, the way restaurants indicate a dish’s level of spiciness by the number of chili peppers next to it on the menu. How do you determine those ratings, and how have audiences reacted?

Audiences have responded very warmly to it. I put the rating system in as a way to manage expectations for the audience. If you’re expecting a food to taste sweet, but it tastes savory, you’re not going to be as receptive if you didn’t know what to expect! The same goes for music. I love contemporary music, but I know I don’t listen to it with the same mindset as I listen to Mozart.

When I make the ratings, I often err on the side of more “chili peppers,” and after the concert, audience members say, “Well, I didn’t think that was such a difficult listen!” I love hearing that complaint, because it means they listened to a new piece and enjoyed it more than they thought they would.

Parlaying a Gift for Explanation into Parlando

In a nutshell, what’s Parlando’s origin story?

The concept behind Parlando was that whenever I would go to concerts or operas with friends and family, they would say “I love the little facts you give throughout the concert, it makes the music so much more interesting!” I realized that classical musicians have all this information that informs our understanding of the music, and audience members often don’t know the information that helps performers bring the music to life.

In college, I developed a passion for creative concert programming through the orchestra I founded there, and eventually it became clear to me that audiences responded most warmly to unfamiliar music when there was a story to guide them through it.

That’s how Parlando’s format (and name) developed – tying anecdotes and information about the music itself throughout a program of thematic repertoire so that “every concert tells a story.”

The bowing technique called “parlando” literally means “speaking.” Is the name of the ensemble a reflection of your desire to directly communicate with audiences, including through talk as well as music?

Yes! I chose the name as a musical term that reflects both the way I communicate with audiences and how speaking can support the music itself.

Planning, budgeting, rehearsing, and staging a series of classical music concerts in a busy city like New York is bound to be a logistical challenge. How do you manage this process while also leading the group as conductor/music director? Is there a behind-the-scenes team?

It’s a very small operation! I’m grateful to work with wonderful Orchestra Manager / Contractor / percussionist-extraordinaire Andrew Beall to coordinate orchestra emails and percussion rentals. It’s been a wonderful learning experience for me having to put together each concert from scratch – coordinating with venues, negotiating with agents, scanning and printing sheet music, etc.

Conducting and the Power of Music

Regarding conducting, I’m curious about your wins at the Khachaturian International Conducting Competition in 2021. How does a conducting competition play out? And what were your personal highlights?

Every competition is different, but in the Khachaturian Competition we had a set amount of time to rehearse without judges present, then a performance in the evening which the judges watched and evaluated. That process repeated for each round.

My highlight from my experience was without a doubt speaking with the musicians in Armenia. It was shortly after the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020, and it was so moving hearing the stories of Armenian musicians who were returning from battle and beginning to resume studies at the conservatory.

There are so many clichés about “the power of music” that get thrown around, but hearing first-hand accounts of how music, specifically the music of Komitas, was a tool for recovery in the wake of such unfathomable tragedy made me see how important music can be to those in need of healing.

After founding Parlando in 2019 you managed just two concerts before the pandemic shut everything down. How did you maintain creative momentum in the long break between February 2020 and November 2021?

Lots of score study. I dedicated the bulk of my time to learning as much of the standard repertoire as possible, trying to be productive during the break in performances. I also made a series of “breakdown videos” somewhat in the vein of how I speak during performances.

Could you point to one or two favorite moments in past Parlando performances?

A moment that stands out to me was during our very first concert.

We performed Henri Dutilleux’s “Mystère de l’instant,” a piece I fell in love with in college but never had seen performed live. As I was researching, I found a story which completely changed my understanding of the piece.

Dutilleux was walking through the French countryside when he heard this incredible swooshing cacophony of bird calls. He was so struck by the sound that he went back the next day with a tape recorder to try and capture it.

It never happened again. So, he wrote this piece based not on the sound of these birds, but rather the memory of the sound of the birds.

The piece takes the form of a loose theme and variations, gradually unfolding and changing, in a similar way that memories change each time we access them. The piece became a depiction of the very act of memory.

After the concert, I was struck by how many people approached me about that piece. There were other more familiar, canonical pieces on the program I expected people to discuss, but all they wanted to talk about was this piece by Dutilleux.

It was then I realized that storytelling was at the heart of what moves audiences and was a worthy mission of the orchestra.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about the Oct. 4 concert and the rest of the season?

I’m looking forward to performing Jimmy López Bellido’s Guardian of the Horizon with two fabulous soloists, Adé Williams and Gabriel Cabezas, who gave the world premiere of the work with Sphinx Virtuosi in 2017. For the rest of the season, I’m excited for Kaija Saariaho’s Graal Théâtre with Geneva Lewis in December, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 with Irina Rindzuner and Mikhail Svetlov. Our season finale [May 1, 2024] will also have our first concert opera performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, featuring bass-baritone Joseph Parrish [see our Blogcritics profile of Parrish] and tenor Daniel McGrew.

Tickets for the October 4 “Odysseys” concert are available online. Parlando’s full 2023-24 season also includes works by Reynaldo Hahn, Aida Shirazi, Darius Milhaud, Erich Korngold, Alfred Schnittke, and more.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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