Since retiring in 2012 as president at the Manhattan School of Music and starting to compose full time, Robert Sirota says his output has tripled.
Sirota turned 70 last October and to celebrate, residencies, performances, and premieres happened throughout the 2019–2020 concert season (with some more recent performances canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic).
Before his job at the Manhattan School of Music, Sirota was Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music and also of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
Although he enjoyed the work and says part of what made him good at it were the same kinds of things he needs to do as a composer — networking, going after commissions, and basically looking for money — Sirota loves devoting five or six mornings a week to composing.
“There has not been one day in last eight years when I’ve regretted it,” he said. “Here’s the wonderful thing — I’ve written about 100 works, and 25 of those were written in the last seven years. I’ve learned two things — if you compose every day, you get better at it, and you can be three times as productive because there’s a continuity to the work, and you don’t have to keep reminding yourself what you’ve done. Concert music requires continuity because it tends to fade from memory quickly because it’s nonverbal.”
It’s not just Sirota who is happy that he’s composing full time. For years, his children, both musicians themselves, have encouraged him to do just that.
Jonah Sirota, a composer and viola player who has recently been composing soundtracks, says his father’s compositional voice has always been clear, and he describes it as “inventive harmonically and beautifully melodic.” He is an advocate for his father’s music he says, having written pieces for him and recently done a recital with him that was livestreamed, but more importantly, he thinks, is now his father advocates for himself.
“It interests me how grateful he is and prolific and productive,” he said. “There’s kind of a recent period of his work that I find edifying.”
Sirota’s daughter, Nadia Sirota, also plays viola, and she’s a member of the chamber sextet yMusic, and a creative partner with the New York Philharmonic. She formerly hosted the Peabody-award-winning podcast, Meet the Composer, and now she hosts Living Music with Nadia Sirota. She says her father was extraordinarily good at running music schools, giving the students care and attention, but she’s thrilled he has given himself time to write the kind of music he wants to.
“I feel like my dad was a composer out of his time,” she said “For his generation at Oberlin and Harvard in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a tough time to be a composer who wanted to write tonal music, and to be really blunt, some said it was stupid or facile, and that hurt him. It’s exciting for me that now he’s taking up the mantle of, ‘I am a serious fucking composer who writes actual music.’”
His style has never been easy to classify, Sirota says. Growing up on Long Island, he describes himself as a “straight arrow.” His playing keyboards and saxophone in a garage band in high school, his rigorous training at Harvard, and going to France on a fellowship to study with composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger, who Sirota calls “spiritually generous” — all these contributed to his recognizable style, he thinks.
“It’s hard to pin down — it’s a mixture of things,” Sirota says. “I’m not a minimalist, I’m not atonal, and I’m not a neoromantic. I’m a lyric composer.”
Jonah and Nadia grew up with not just their father’s music in the background of their lives — their mother, Victoria Sirota, is a concert organist as well as a priest at an Episcopal church in Yonkers, New York.
Victoria met Sirota at Oberlin, and on their first date, he took her to hear a couple songs he’d written.
“The only modern music I knew was Shostakovich’s Fifth. I started crying,” she said. “I didn’t understand it, but I did, and I thought this guy is a real composer. I have always known more than anybody else that Bob is not just a composer — he’s a great composer.”
Growing up, both Nadia and Jonah say they were not very disciplined about music — until they found the viola. Victoria says they were reluctant to push their children. Jonah chose the violin because his parents didn’t play it, she says, and she remembers him yelling at them for not making him practice.
Nadia says she “deeply, profoundly knew I was a wonderful musician,” but at first, she didn’t have much interest in practicing either.
“My parents tried to teach me piano, and it didn’t work out,” she said. “I thought they were being patronizing.”
Jonah played violin until high school, when someone told him he was an OK violinist, but he could be a great viola player. He jokes that viola players are always trying to recruit because there are never enough of them, but he did switch, and by the end of sophomore year he only played viola, and got motivated, he says.
The same thing happened to his sister when she switched from violin to viola.
“I did it for two reasons,” she said. “One was my brother played it. He was six and half years older, and I looked up to him. I did it when I was 13-ish, and I became an alto instead of soprano, and I felt like I could pull things out of my instrument that I couldn’t with the violin. So I got way motivated.”
The Sirotas’ musical relationship with each other has changed. Nadia remembers when her father first got his job at the Manhattan School of Music, they wanted to pitch a story about the family to The New York Times. She refused. Now she feels lucky to be a member of her family.
“I’m blessed by having two parents who are unbelievably supportive. Sometimes it feels almost comical how on my side and on my team they are — it’s like a secret weapon,” she said. “It’s not a given you can be colleagues with your parents, and it’s wonderful.”
Her father feels the same way, describing playing music with his whole family — as they did for his birthday — as a gift.
“I have an incredible wife who is the premier interpreter of my organ music, and we’ve raised these two extraordinary violists and musicians who understand my music and have become my primary advocates,” he said. “It’s amazing, but it wasn’t always like this. We tried to give a concert together when Nadia was 15 and Jonah was 21. We gave a successful concert, but we ended up fighting at rehearsals like you wouldn’t believe.”
Now Sirota says he realizes how much he can learn from his children — like about performing from Jonah, who has given hundreds of concerts. And it was yMusic, the sextet Nadia plays in, that led to possibly Sirota’s favorite recent project — getting to do arrangements for Paul Simon, who collaborated with the sextet on his farewell tour.
“I mean in high school, I wanted to be Paul Simon,” Sirota said. “He started his show at the Boston Garden with my arrangement of America, and there were 14,000 people, and when they heard the tune they all started to cheer, and I just lost it.”