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Why Music?

Six young musicians take the stage of Zankel Hall. Acoustic instruments, music stands, the trappings of classical music. But they’re familiar from other stages. Did the tie-wearing violinist tour with Bon Iver? Was the mop-haired trumpeter onstage with Paul Simon? Could this sextet be the multitalented band that gave Ben Folds’s recent shows a soft-spoken delicacy?

The group is yMusic. Six impeccably trained classical instrumentalists. Six creative artists. Six badasses. They aren’t household names, but they have provided the foundation for powerhouse acts. This December, they step into the limelight to take their bow.

Photos by Allan Amato

Nadia Sirota, yMusic’s violist, buzzes with wit and verve over a weary internet connection from Australia, recounting the group’s origin story. “We kept bumping in to each other at not-quite-classical gigs, playing with The National or Sufjan Stevens.” They found the quality of backing musicians varied wildly. “The world’s best trumpeter might be standing beside somebody’s cousin on cello ... who also played guitar.”

A post-gig hang, a hatched idea: “What if we weren’t 50 feet from each other? What if we treated these gigs with the care, love, and attention we give chamber music?” What if they came in spick and span and ready to kill—ready to listen, discuss, collaborate?

While older generations of classical musicians looked down their nose at indie collaborations, this new generation has a different attitude. Walls disappear, ideas flow. yMusic—as in “generation Y”—are classical music’s millennials. Critic Steve Smith says yMusic gives all music “equal enthusiasm and respect, with the idea that everything is worth doing and worth considering on its own terms.”

When playing alone, “our castle needs to stand up on its own. It requires a different kind of focus.”

Since yMusic’s founding in 2008, they have become indie darlings, collaborators of choice for artists from Ben Folds to the Dirty Projectors to José González. As backing players, “we work off someone else’s charisma, building little houses around this human, making them shine,” Sirota adds. When playing alone, “our castle needs to stand up on its own. It requires a different kind of focus.”

Composer Nico Muhly, a frequent musical partner, calls yMusic an “engaging and explosive group. I always look forward to seeing how others have unlocked the strange door to their sound.”

Their mission developed two prongs. One: collaborate with bands and songwriters “to develop interesting, toothsome, awesome projects,” says Sirota. Two: work with composers to make “dynamic, contemporary chamber music.”

yMusic photo by Allan Amato
Photo by Allan Amato.

And with Carnegie Hall being 125 years young, the venerable institution echoes yMusic’s ideals. Looking firmly to the future, it is celebrating the energy and spirit of classical music by bringing 125 new musical works into being. Last season, pianist Brad Mehldau spun delicate webs around J. S. Bach, Shara Worden’s tremulous voice mused on birth and death, and composer Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol communed with Turkish Sufi mysticism. This season brings new works by Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Russian mystic Sofi a Gubaidulina, The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner, and minimalist master Steve Reich.

Photos by Allan Amato

And in December, yMusic presents two new Carnegie Hall–commissioned works by Caroline Shaw and Chris Thile—two energetic musical omnivores, collaborating with six open-hearted instrumentalists.

Composer Caroline Shaw seeks to capture “the tragic, beautiful loneliness of existence, and the complete ecstatic joy of existence.” Her musical voice—direct, heartfelt, with a keening edge of pain—is connected to older worlds, but breathes the 21st century’s bracing air.

For Shaw, the members of yMusic are “some of the most versatile musicians I know.” That’s high praise from the Pulitzer Prize–winning composer who is equally at home playing viola, singing with Roomful of Teeth, or collaborating with Kanye West. And she is pushing yMusic into uncharted territory, “to get them to sing with their own voices as well as with their instruments.” This challenge, to sing while playing, is familiar in many genres, but stubbornly remains a rarity in classical music.

yMusic is eager to step onto the tightrope. “Putting yourself in uncomfortable positions,” says Sirota, “keeps you honest and musically interesting. We enjoy seeing how ‘flexie’ we can be.” And flexible they are, as multi-instrumentalists, arrangers, radio presenters, classical soloists, entrepreneurs, jazz musicians, and orchestral players. Composer Timo Andres calls yMusic “the most useful implement in your kitchen, pressed into service in a nearly infinite number of ways.”

But they come to Carnegie Hall together, a team. “There’s something comforting about walking on stage with five of your closest friends, trying to make stirring performances in front of a live audience. It’s a special, privileged thing.”

Photos by Allan Amato

Another of yMusic’s closest friends—“besties,” as he calls them—is Chris Thile, who is equally at home with Bach, bluegrass, and Bartók. A thoroughly modern musician, he plays mandolin with loose-limbed ease, and writes music of intelligence and joy. The Grammy-winning musician, part of the uncategorizable Punch Brothers, seeks a path “between music that is visceral and music that is intellectual. I want a new perspective on what it means to be alive.”

Thile’s new piece for yMusic is a nerve-racking beta-test—the first in which he doesn’t perform. He calls his presence “a crutch”—able to cover for weaknesses by translating wishes, leaning on his playing, and relying on a band “I know almost as well as myself.”

Thile says of instrumental music, “I love its mercurial nature. We are free as listeners to spin our own yarns. Something is being communicated, but exactly what is a dance between composers, performers, and listeners. I love collaborative meaning in concert—a living, breathing organism that can evolve”—which is exactly what yMusic brings to the stage.

So yMusic, as in “why music”?

Sirota was in a Minneapolis cab, bedraggled and disillusioned, at the end of a long travel day. The driver told her, “You are a musician. You bring people joy. You have the most important job.” “I needed to hear that,” she says. “Music gives joy, brings people together. It is something we crave on a fundamental level. It’s why people worship. In yMusic, we have the privilege of working with some of the most incredible creative thinkers. We participate in music history in some way. It’s one of the most joyful projects I can think of.”

—By Tim Munro, an Australian-born, Grammy-winning flutist based in Chicago

Friday, December 2 at 7:30 PM

yMusic has been called “one of the groups that has really helped to shape the future of classical music” by NPR. This daring multi-instrument ensemble’s catholic taste, stylistic versatility, and impeccable musicianship bring striking vitality to the music of our time. yMusic performs works from its critically acclaimed albums Beautiful Mechanical and Balance Problems, and premieres new works by Chris Thile and Caroline Shaw, both part of Carnegie Hall’s 125 Commissions Project.

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