People in the News

New Artist of the Month: Conductor Ian Niederhoffer

May 1, 2024 | By Thomas May, Musical America

The urgent need to connect with new and more diverse audiences has made today’s classical music presenters preoccupied with rethinking the concert experience. From the choice of repertoire to format, timing, and even ticket policies (is pay-what-you-can the panacea?), every facet invites intense scrutiny.

But for Ian Niederhoffer, the key to making a concert relevant resides in the timeless appeal of storytelling. It was with this conviction that the young conductor founded the New York City-based chamber orchestra Parlando in 2019.

Guided by its motto that “every concert tells a story,” Parlando comprises a pool of eager young musicians who have been building a loyal following through their smart mix of familiar and contemporary programming, the commitment of their performances, and a secret ingredient: Niederhoffer’s charisma as a storyteller in words and music alike.

I experienced just how effective that charisma is at a Parlando’s December concert at New York’s Kaufman Music Center. The program paired a piece by Aida Shirazi with Shostakovich’s death-obsessed Symphony No. 14 for two vocal soloists and chamber orchestra. Only in his late 20s, Niederhoffer displayed not just an impressive grasp of how to shape musical priorities but an ability to convey why they matter. His brief introductions to each work were pithy but articulate, memorable and, most importantly, rooted in the essence of the music itself. 

“Without changing the presentation particularly much, there’s a way to make a musical experience so much more, just by saying a few words to give context,” Niederhoffer told me in a recent Zoom interview. “It doesn’t have to be a lecture.”

He offered a favorite example that confirmed his vision for Parlando and how to connect most effectively with the group’s audience. Its debut concert, in November 2019, included Henri Dutilleux’s Le Mystère de l’instant as the “discovery” piece alongside Jessie Montgomery’s Banner and Strauss’s Metamorphosen. Niederhoffer recalls being stunned by the enthusiasm that the French composer’s music stirred up.

He had introduced the piece by describing how Dutilleux once encountered a flock of birds while walking in the French countryside and admired the incredible swooshing sound of their calls. Determined to capture this sound, Dutilleux went back the next day with a tape recorder and waited, but it never happened again. “So I explained how the piece he wrote is based not on the sound of the birds but on his memory of that sound: a loose theme and variations form, resembling the way that memories change each time you access them.”

At the informal post-concert reception — a regular feature that allows Parlando’s audience to mingle as well as to discuss the music with each other and the conductor — Niederhoffer was surprised by the unexpected degree of interest they expressed in Dutilleux’s music: “I realized that the way to make unfamiliar or complex repertoire accessible to audiences isn’t to dumb it down but to present it as a story to give them something to grab on to.”

But Niederhoffer’s relationship to the art took a new turn at the age of 14, when his youth orchestra was rehearsing the last movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. A self-described history buff since his childhood, he became intrigued by the historical context surrounding Shostakovich’s comeback following his fall from grace.

“For the first time, I realized that classical music isn’t separate from the world but actually part of it,” he says. “That spark of connection inspired the way I’ve felt about music going forward. So I try to recreate that link between music and the world we live in for the audience.”

Niederhoffer decided soon after that experience that he wanted to pursue a career in conducting. “I found that I was more interested in what everyone else was playing than what I was playing,” he recalls of his years as a violist in youth orchestras. But he also gravitated toward conducting because of his personality.

Entreneurial spirit

As an undergraduate at Yale—which he chose instead of a conservatory so that he could integrate his musical studies with literature, history, and philosophy—Niederhoffer founded a chamber orchestra (which is still active) dedicated to underperformed composers and new music. He also discovered that his impromptu comments about the pieces had a positive effect on the audience.

Following a summer at the Järvi Academy at the Pärnu Music Festival in Estonia, Niederhoffer launched Parlando—only to confront the pandemic’s first shutdowns midway through their first season. He spent the period of isolation building his repertoire and honing his storytelling skills by crafting videos in Parlando style based on specific pieces.

Parlando resumed giving concerts in November 2021 and concludes its current season on May 1 with a program illustrating how later composers—Reynaldo Hahn, Alfred Schnittke, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov—interpreted Mozart’s legacy ("The Other Mozart Effect").

The ensemble is flexible, changing with each program, drawing on a variety of New York-based freelancers, including musical friends that Niederhoffer made in the New York Youth Symphony as well as at Yale. Although assisted by an orchestra manager, he handles the basic logistics of running Parlando. Niederhoffer considers this a valuable opportunity to gain experience in conducting and in music directorship at the same time: “It’s so useful to learn what goes into making an arts organization and what happens at every single level.”

Eventually, Niederhoffer hopes to create two parallel trajectories, following the more traditional conducting career path of guest appearances and assistant positions with established orchestras, while at the same time continuing to lead Parlando. “This is an organization that I love and nurture because it expresses who I am as an artist,” he says. “My dream is to bring that to as many people as possible, because I feel so passionately about this music and the stories that it tells.”

Photos by Rebecca Fay




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