In the 1980s, while other kids plastered their bedroom walls with posters of Michael Jordan suspended in air mid-dunk or the dreamboats from New Kids on the Block showing off well-coiffed manes, Nadia Sirota decorated her room with heroes of a different sort: early 20th century modernist composers.
“I was obsessed with Benjamin Britten and Stravinsky when I was a little kid,” the 36-year-old violist, curator and podcast host says. “Hindemith, too. I cut all three of their names out of construction paper and put them on my walls.”
Sirota’s musical taste evolved and expanded over the years, but her obsession with the lives and music of inventive, forward-looking composers never dissipated. Rather, it intensified and solidified into a clearly defined mission: to share contemporary classical music with the widest possible audience.
In pursuit of that goal, Sirota will appear onstage at the Theatre at Ace Hotel this Saturday night alongside composers Andrew Norman and Caroline Shaw and new music ensemble wild Up for the first iteration of “Living Music Live!”
Presented by Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, this hybrid conversation-concert will draw audiences into the music and creative processes of Norman and Shaw, with wild Up performing demonstrations and excerpts and Sirota acting as musical sherpa and host.
Produced with her creative partner, Alex Overington, “Meet the Composer” featured the sort of densely layered, rich sound design that listeners expect from shows like “This American Life” or “Radiolab,” an ideal format for delving into long-form musical compositions.
Each hourlong episode of “Meet the Composer” was a colorful sonic portrait of one living composer. Whether she was dissecting the complex structures of a piece like Norman’s “Play” through the metaphor of video games or reveling in the expansive beauty of John Luther Adams’ compositions through the imagery of the vast, barren Alaskan landscape he called home, Sirota’s conversational approach to interviewing and storytelling, along with her unbridled enthusiasm for her subjects, imbued the show with an entertaining, informative, accessible tone that appealed to music aficionados and the randomly curious.
Composer Nico Muhly, Sirota’s longtime friend, former Juilliard classmate and the subject of one “Meet the Composer” episode, said that when he listened to the podcast, the experience was similar to watching Sirota dissect and perform a new piece of music on her viola.
“The podcast is like a slowed-down version of her ability to understand what is going on in a piece of music and communicate it to an audience,” Muhly said. “For me, what is interesting is that sometimes the podcast sounds a lot like conversations Nadia and I would have in our day-to-day lives. When she and I speak about music, it’s pretty much shoptalk. But she manages to communicate it in such a way that you’ll totally get it even if you’re not a musician.”
Collaborating with composers and performing their music is a familiar experience for Sirota. At Juilliard, where she studied viola as an undergraduate and graduate student, she sought out composer friends like Muhly to write music for her, much of which she later recorded across four solo albums.
In high school, Sirota took composition lessons but found she preferred bringing her fellow composition students’ musical creations to life in concerts over writing her own music.
And as a kid growing up in New England, Sirota was surrounded by composers and new music, and not just on her bedroom walls. Her father, Robert, is a composer; her older brother, Jonah, is a violist, chamber musician and composer. Her mother was a church organist and choir director before she became an Episcopal priest.
Sirota likes to joke that proselytizing for new music feels like working for the “family business.”
That business has led to fun opportunities for the instrumentalist and tastemaker: a cameo on Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle”; brainstorming sessions with New York Philharmonic President and Chief Executive Deborah Borda and Music Director Jaap van Zweden as that orchestra’s first “creative partner”; performing alongside Paul Simon with her ensemble yMusic on “Saturday Night Live” and on his farewell tour.
“Everything I do, all the different branches of my life that seem disparate, they all have a common goal,” Sirota says. “It’s about following joy. I feel like it’s important to always have that thing that you’re working on that is your passion project. For me, that is the podcast.”
That passion project was a success, with monthly downloads reaching 10 times what a No. 1 classical album sells in a month, Sirota says. But it hit a snag.
In 2017, New York Public Radio underwent what Sirota describes as a “slight restructuring.” Sirota was asked to re-pitch her show and start over with a new concept, something she was unwilling to do. Her mission and vision for the podcast were crystal clear, she said, and she wasn’t interested in working on a version of the show she was less passionate about.
“This goal of making the audience for contemporary classical music larger, for me that is the thing,” Sirota says. “It is what I’m most psyched about. I think in general one is a best advocate for the thing that they themselves like the most.”
Sirota wanted to continue with “Meet the Composer,” but she did not own any of the material she had created.
“I didn’t own the name. I didn’t own any of the content. New York Public Radio owned it all,” she says. “In that moment I realized that I didn’t need to ask someone’s permission or wait for somebody else to tell me what I needed to do. I can be responsible for my own content and move forward.”
And so Sirota, who now splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, where her fiancé is based, started her own production company (New Music Radio) and is producing her own new podcast, “Living Music With Nadia Sirota.”
Much like “Meet the Composer,” her new show will feature deep dives into the lives of composers, performers and conductors. To further expand audiences for the music she loves, she plans to record live concerts and release them as downloadable podcasts. And there will be live events, like this weekend’s show at the Ace, which doubles as the launch party for her new podcast, episodes of which will be released this year.