Concert As Storytelling: Others May Play Notes, Parlando Conjures Tales

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Ian Niederhoffer conducting Parlando, with violin soloist Aubree Oliverson (Photos by Faymous Studios)

NEW YORK — Ian Niederhoffer wants classical music to survive and flourish. That’s why the 26-year-old conductor founded the string orchestra Parlando, now in its fourth season. Its next concert, on Dec. 3, promises to be as inventive as Niederhoffer’s previous programs. And just as welcoming to all listeners, whether seasoned aficionados or trepidatious newcomers.

Niederhoffer was formulating a plan to start an orchestra while an undergraduate at Yale, inspired by attending concerts with friends and family. “They loved those little bits of information that I would tell them throughout the performance,” he says. Those anecdotes became Parlando’s core concept: “a classical-music organization built around storytelling to create a cohesive narrative. Storytelling is how people can engage with music, like Beethoven scratching out Napoleon’s name in Eroica or the Adagietto being a love song for Alma.”

By chance, an ideal partner was waiting in the wings. Andrew Beall, Parlando’s percussionist and orchestra manager, also writes musical theater and hires musicians for Broadway orchestras. Beall knew Niederhoffer’s mother, Kara Unterberg, who runs New York SongSpace, a collaborative space for theater creatives. When she mentioned that her son studied conducting, Beall offered to use his connections to help him. “A year later he emailed me and said let’s talk,” Beall recalls. “We had a burger at Five Napkin Burger, and that’s where Parlando was started.

“I hit the pavement in August 2019,” Niederhoffer says, “and we had our first concert in November 2019. Many of the musicians in our first concert were friends from either undergrad or from various festivals I’d attended.” He is grateful for Beall’s contribution. “He has such a talent and a warmth for bringing people together that it created this instant camaraderie.” The orchestra remains a freelance organization.

After the second concert, in February 2020, Covid struck. But Niederhoffer kept the Parlando brand alive with a series of “short breakdown videos, taking pieces and trying to dive into the history behind them.” The story-rich repertoire included Mahler’s First Symphony and William Grant Still’s Afro American Symphony, pieces withsome real historical meat on the bones.” (To see videos of Parlando programs, go here.)

Parlando founder Ian Niederhoffer always speaks to the audience about the works the ensemble is performing.

By fall 2021, Niederhoffer’s charismatic storytelling returned to the stage. Listeners often tell him how his stories affect them. He recalls the reaction to a program about memory, which included Jessie Montgomery’s Banner and Strauss’ Metamorphosen. “In between, we performed Henri Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant. I told the story about how Dutilleux was walking in the French countryside and saw this flock of birds. They made this incredible whooshing sound, and he was so struck by the sound that he went back the next day with a tape recorder. But it never happened again, so he wrote this piece, not based on the sound of the birds but on his memory of the sound of the birds.” Despite the challenge Dutilleux can present to an audience, “I found that people just latched onto it.”

It’s not only neophytes who benefit from such presentations, says harpist Parker Ramsay, who was a soloist with Parlando in 2022. Experienced concertgoers also love to learn. “They’re hungry for more. And it doesn’t come in the form of program notes.” Ramsay cites conductor Leon Botstein as a model for how to give the whole audience new information. “Ian certainly is one of the better people of my generation doing it,” he says. Niederhoffer is proud of his universal approach: “You could come in knowing all three pieces, and you could come in never going to a classical-music concert, and I hope that there’s something for everyone.”

While written notes might not be sufficient, Niederhoffer does utilize the program booklet. First, he includes the running time of each piece. “It helps the audience mentally prepare and have expectations,” says Beall. “They like to have a subconscious notion of when the show is going to be over, even if they’re enjoying it.”

Niederhoffer also offers a unique aid for each work: a row of little musical notes, inspired by the chili peppers found on menus warning about levels of spiciness. The point is “to give the audience some sense of how much they should brace themselves.” He enjoys being approached afterward by audience members who disagree with the level of heat: “They say, ‘You ranked that three chili peppers, but I didn’t think it was that spicy.’”

Composer Andrew Beall is Parlando’s percussionist and orchestra manager.

“It’s kind of genius,” says Beall.

It’s also fun. “When a conductor is very formal, it can easily come off as condescension,” says Parlando’s concertmaster, Joel Lambdin. He finds that Niederhoffer exudes an accessible message: “These are the cool things that we connect to in these pieces. These are the sounds that you’re going to hear, and this is why the composer chose them.”

The programs are carefully curated into themes. “I choose repertoire largely based on stories,” says Niederhoffer. “We’ve done a program on how composers who were otherwise marginalized from classical music found a home in Hollywood, and one dealing with how Cold War censorship in the United States and Soviet Union manifested itself in the sound of works by Copland, Feinberg, and Edvard Mirzoyan.”

“I didn’t even know this composer,” Lambdin says of the Armenian Mirzoyan. For him, learning new repertoire is part of Parlando’s appeal.

Parlando varies in size, adding non-string instruments as needed. “Our smallest concert group was in April 2021,” says Niederhoffer, “when we did a program inspired by the idea that Copland was this gay, Jewish communist from Brooklyn who wrote prairie music, yet we consider him a pan-American composer.”

For that program, Niederhoffer commissioned four American composers of various backgrounds “to write pieces loosely inspired by Appalachian Spring, but for the original 13-instrument ensemble” for which Copland had composed his ballet. The chili-pepper system was especially helpful for that concert, Niederhoffer found.

A busy freelancer, Lambdin had trouble fitting Parlando into his schedule. But the February 2022 program proved too good to resist, featuring violinist Tai Murray playing Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. “I love the piece and I love her playing,” he said. So, he set aside the dates. About a year later, he was named Parlando’s concertmaster. “Ian’s very appreciative of musicians in ways that other organizations are not.” The result is “a returning core of people,” with Niederhoffer and Beall “balancing loyalty to the players who have really devoted themselves, and bringing new people in.”

The audience is as committed as the musicians. “We have a very dedicated audience base that is slowly growing,” says Niederhoffer. “People come and they bring a friend, and they bring another friend.” Ramsay understands why the fan-base is expanding. “Parlando is providing music of quality and musical performance of quality, which is essential in New York. The audience becomes informed as well as enchanted.”

Harpist Parker Ramsay has appeared as soloist with Parlando. (Photo by Tatiana Daubek)

Throughout his career, Ramsay has liked to speak from the stage. “A lot of what I do as a solo harpist involves advocacy for my instrument,” he says. With Parlando, he played Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane, originally written for chromatic harp and string quartet, so there was plenty to talk about. He even had a chance to answer follow-up questions: All Parlando concerts include an after-performance reception for listeners and performers. Although that kind of thing is often found in early-music or chamber groups, “with a larger orchestra such as Ian’s it’s a little less common, but it’s certainly refreshing,” says Ramsay, who was impressed that Niederhoffer “didn’t shy away from talking to those who came out to support him.”

Lambdin credits Niederhoffer with another strength essential for modern-day performing arts. “He hasn’t had to adjust his programming to fit the diversity push, because he’s always had a variety not just of composers but of performers. He has historically done a very good job of being broad and inclusive. We are all one multifaceted family.”

On the Dec. 3 concert, that family will expand to its largest size yet, 31 musicians, playing works by Milhaud, Saariaho, and Korngold in a program exploring what it means for music to be theatrical. Geneva Lewis is the violin soloist for Saariaho’s Graal Théâtre. Two concerts are planned for the winter and spring. On Feb. 25, “Transient Voices” views music as ephemera. The May 1 program is called “The Other Mozart Effect.”

As for Parlando’s future, Niederhoffer is focused on growth. “Bigger audience, bigger hall, bigger repertoire. Having a wider range of classical music to draw from means so many more stories that we can tell. Expanding to different audiences would be wonderful.” In August 2023, the orchestra took its first road trip, to play Shostakovich’s The New Babylon score live during a screening of the silent film in Westerly, RI. “It was an absolute blast. I’m hoping to bring that elsewhere.”

The ensemble’s core of stringed instruments is expanded to include other instruments as the repertoire demands,.

Lambdin envisions more chamber music as well as pieces incorporating “what everybody’s used to now — video and electronic sounds. We need to be more proactive in bringing those familiar things into the environment of the classical world.”

“We’re all one,” says Beall, “experiencing this in this hour-and-a-half time period. The experience in the audience is just as important as the orchestra.”

Parlando’s program “Melodrama” will be performed at Merkin Hall on Dec. 3. For tickets and information, go here.