Violinist Aisslinn Nosky Is Astounding Audiences and Nurturing Classical Music’s Future
One of the most admired, innovative, rigorous, and passionate violinists of our time, Aisslinn Nosky, is an early music specialist who can also manifest her amazingly versatile skills in works from other musical eras, including in contemporary works. She is an ardent educator and advocate for classical music’s future, both in terms of nurturing young performers and attracting new audiences. Nosky is the concertmaster of the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston, considered the oldest orchestra in our nation. On Tuesday, December 14 she will perform live in an all-Mozart concert with the American Classical Orchestra, New York’s premier period instrument orchestra. The concert is at 8:00 pm at Alice Tully Hall. Links to detailed information about Aisslinn Nosky, as well as to where to purchase tickets to this not-to-be-missed concert, are listed at the end of this interview.
How have you been and how did you spend the shutdown time?
I was very busy right before the pandemic and the shutdown, and then all of a sudden, I had nothing to do. I took some time away from music to think about life and it was really a nice break. But now, the good news is, things are coming back, and they’re busier than ever, actually. I feel a little bit out of practice, in the sense of dealing with my schedule, but I’m starting to feel like my old self again and it’s wonderful. I’ve missed performing so much! I missed our audience.
Did you have any surprising revelations about yourself during your time of reflection?
I think I was surprised by how much I missed music. I thought I would maybe get new hobbies or interests. I did try to expand my horizons, but I just kept coming back to music.
Were you in New York during all that time?
Yes. I was in New York the whole time and I really enjoyed that I got to be in such a beautiful place. I moved to New York in 2017 from Toronto, and I had been so busy that I wasn’t really in the city very often. I live on the Upper West Side, so when we shut down, I spent essentially a year going to Riverside Park every day, and I got to see the whole seasons change through one year, which was so incredibly beautiful, something I wouldn’t have even thought of trying before. I saw the city from my own perspective of a relative newcomer, and I love it even more now.
You made your solo debut at the age of 8 with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra. And according to your mother, you were inspired to become a violinist at the age of 3, while watching “Sesame Street.” Do you remember anything about that moment? What was it about the violin that made you say: this will be my life?
I don’t remember that moment, but I believe it happened. I suspect it might have been watching the great violinist Itzhak Perlman make an appearance on Sesame Street. My mother says that I didn’t ask, I told her that I was going to play the violin when I grew up. She was surprised by that and said: “Would you like to try it to make sure that you enjoy it?” I said yes, and we bought a little tiny violin. I have a lot of impressions of my first violin lessons; I was very, very fortunate to have wonderful teachers. My mother has said about that early process that it was interesting watching me become really serious very quickly. I was a normal kid in many ways, but she said: “you just couldn’t wait for your violin lesson” and I do remember that feeling.
Aisslinn Nosky rehearsing with Thomas Crawford, Artistic Director
of the American Classical Orchestra
You grew up in Canada in a town called Nanaimo, in British Columbia, that you refer to as “the most beautiful place in the world.” What is it about it that makes it so beautiful? Do you return to it often?
I think there might be a few things that make the Pacific Northwest, specifically Nanaimo, really special to me. I have so many childhood memories of the smell and the sound of the ocean. I love to be near water. But in Vancouver, in that part of the world, there are mountains really close to the ocean, so you have an incredible view of these big snowy peaks and the beautiful blue water. And you see killer whales and other kind of whales swim by…it’s just absolutely exhilarating to me. My family is still there in the Pacific Northwest, in and around Nanaimo. It’s really hard to get to; because I live in New York, it takes me three flights to get to Nanaimo, a whole day. So, I don’t get to go back very often, which makes it even more special when I do get to go back, I enjoy it that much more. It’s magical to me.
As a teenager, you moved to Toronto and discovered the early music universe. How did life in Toronto contribute to your growth as an artist?
I lived in Toronto almost 25 years. That went a long way towards forming me as an artist. I met so many wonderful musicians and people there who educated me and shared their talents with me, and life was so good. It’s a wonderful city to live in. It has a top-notch symphony orchestra, a world-class opera orchestra, a wonderful Baroque orchestra called Tafelmusik, of which I was a member for 10 years. I was lucky enough to have opportunities to work in some capacity with all of those organizations. I sometimes say I was born in the Pacific Northwest on Vancouver Island, but I really grew up in Toronto, so I’m a mix of an Eastern Canadian aesthetic and Western Canadian that’s a little bit unusual.
Speaking of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, the German word “Tafelmusik” literally means “table music,” a term used since the Baroque period for music played at feasts and banquets. This custom of accompanying feasts, and even something like a symposium, with music dates from ancient Egyptian and Greek times. And later, we had the great composer Gioachino Rossini, who loved to eat, and some of his short pieces, considered a kind of Tafelmusik, were called “antipasto” and “dessert.” So, was this long tradition always at the forefront of this orchestra’s work?
For sure. We always used to say that Tafelmusik was music for the feast. A feast is also a party, and Tafelmusik tried to have a good time when we were performing and make the biggest kind of party we possibly could. Musicians are very serious. When we’re practicing our craft, we can be, because it’s difficult to do what we do. But I also just really like to have a good time and that was definitely part of the culture of Tafelmusik in Toronto. It still is. It’s a wonderful group of people.
In 2011, you became concertmaster of the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston, considered the oldest orchestra in our nation, founded in 1815. How did it feel to be included in the astonishing musical and historical timeline of performances and prestigious line of concertmasters of this orchestra?
Becoming a part of the Handel & Haydn Society is a deep honor. This tradition, of 206 years now, is so important for our world: having an organization devoted to classical music that, no matter what happens, is still there. I feel a great responsibility to do whatever I can do to continue the tradition so that it goes forward in the future and keeps thriving. It was really exciting to be a part of the bicentennial celebrations in 2015, and the whole time I am still aware that I want there to be a 300-year celebration. So, I always think to myself, how else can I support that, what can I do?
You had mentioned that you learned a lot by playing as one of the other violinists at the back of an orchestra. How does that inform your work when you become a concertmaster?
I’m so fortunate that I’ve been in every different role in an orchestra that a violinist can have. I’ve been like the 50th violin of 50, sort of sitting backstage almost, and I’ve also been the first violinist up at the front of the stage. I think that has given me a deep understanding of what it’s like to play the violin from different parts of the orchestra and I hope that it has made me a more helpful concertmaster. You know, I actually really enjoy all those different roles. I enjoyed being the last violinist on stage just as much as I enjoy being a concertmaster. They’re really difficult in different ways. I feel it’s a real privilege to have had those perspectives. I think some violinists who excel and become concertmasters go directly into leadership roles, which is fantastic, but sometimes they may not have as much of a perspective of what it’s like to not be the leader.
Aisslinn Nosky with Maestro Thomas Crawford
and American Classical Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall
Tell us a bit about how it is when you are a member of an orchestra as opposed to being a concertmaster.
When I’m a member of a string section and I’m not leading it, I am even more aware of how everyone around me is feeling, and I’m trying to be a contributing member of the team. When I am a concertmaster, I am more focused on trying to enable and organize the whole group and make us, as a collective orchestra, be our best. It’s a different kind of awareness.
For about three years, you were Principal Guest Conductor of the Niagara Symphony. As a concertmaster, you have somewhat of a conducting role, you lead the other players and influence their phrasing, and you are the connector between the players and the conductor. How was it to transfer these skills to being an actual Maestra and conduct a symphony orchestra?
I acquired a few new skills when I was conducting the Niagara Symphony. I would love to know what the musicians there would say about it. It’s a really wonderful group of people. Not only are they kind but they’re great players. I was very honest and tried to make it clear that I’m trained as a violinist not as a conductor. I actually played my violin a lot of the time, even though I was on the podium. When it got too complicated and the orchestra needed more information from me, I put the violin down and conducted a little bit, and then I picked up the violin again. I think it was an interesting experience for them; it was certainly an interesting one for me.
What repertoire were you doing with them?
We were doing Beethoven. From my perspective, it can make sense to have an instrumentalist conducting Beethoven. In later music, things got more complex, so I think it became reasonable to have someone on the podium who was not playing an instrument but just conducting. Even Beethoven’s later symphonies were just conducted. The tradition of the conductor who is not an instrumentalist comes to the forefront really strongly in the 19th century. But before that, either keyboard players or violinists usually kept the time. The choral and opera worlds were the exception in that they often, for practical reasons, would have someone in the pit just conducting because the singers needed to see that. For instrumental music… well, I mean Haydn was a concertmaster and so were Mozart and Handel.
You are an early music specialist, and you also enjoy playing contemporary music. So much is relative, and tastes change, but what do you believe are the elements that would make a new piece become enduring?
That’s very interesting. I actually think a lot about what makes certain eighteenth century music still so popular today. A very famous example is Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” the violin concertos that I get to play a lot. What is it that makes them, hundreds of years later, still so popular? I think you have to start with music that’s really well composed. Vivaldi was very careful in the creation of those concertos, and they’re entertaining. I think also, because he named them “The Four Seasons,” that gives some mnemonic device where people can remember. We all experience the passage of seasons, so there’s something meaningful also outside of the music there. I would say, if people are moved, if they are made sad or happy and entertained by a piece of art, it’s going to last, if the musicians and performers will do their work and perform it for people, which is not always easy. But if people are not affected by a piece of art, it will just fade away with the passing of time. I’m not a composer but I’m fascinated by the process, and all the composers I know totally amaze me. And I’m always trying to get them to tell me how they do it. None of them will. Either they can’t explain or they don’t want to tell me the secret.
I read that you’re a Metallica fan. Tell us more. Does Metallica inspire you in any way, and why?
I respond to any kind of music that has emotional energy and that speaks to me with intensity; that’s one of the things that attracts me to Metallica’s music. I would absolutely love to be in a band like Metallica! But I don’t have time and maybe in my life that ship has sailed. I want to be on stage and have people clapping and enjoying the music and having a good time, and when I experience Metallica, that’s what they’re doing for people. It’s this visceral energy. When that’s in music, I love it, in whatever kind of music it is, it could be jazz or avant-garde or Bach if it’s played with this emotional intensity.
Well, you never know… There are always hybrid performances. There have been classical musicians performing with rappers, for example. It’s never too late.
Thank you for saying that!
Many have praised you for your rhythmic precision. How do you negotiate between keeping the instrumentalists you lead under a certain rhythmic control and the sometimes spontaneously arising give-and-take of an inspired moment?
From my perspective, rhythmic precision is very important in 18th century music. I don’t have a secret as to how I strive for it to be present, but I do practice my rhythm a lot. I practice with a metronome often, and I try to constantly check that I’m understanding the rhythm correctly. I get really excited when I’m playing music because it’s fun, and sometimes the excitement makes me go faster than is good for the music. That’s maybe not uncommon in violinists, but I try to make sure that I’m not pushing too much. Also, sometimes I can be too insistent on rhythmic precision and that actually hurts the music. I’m trying to examine my relationship to rhythmic precision all the time.
It’s instinctive as well…
Yeah. Well, when I’m playing other styles of music, like French Impressionist music, there’s a lot more give-and-take in the rhythm, and I find that beautiful and wonderful as well. Since I’m out of practice playing that style of music, it doesn’t come as easily to me, but I look to other musicians to whom it comes easily, and they can help me out.
Please talk to us about Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante,” the special piece you will be performing in the December 14th concert at Alice Tully Hall. In this piece, the violin and the viola share the spotlight. How do you feel about the piece in general, and also about this duet and dialogue-like opportunity to engage with the viola?
Performing the “Sinfonia Concertante” is one of the most fun things I’ve ever been able to do on stage. I enjoy it so much. I think it’s because, as a violinist, I have spent a lot of time playing solo concertos, which is great. But here, I have a very good friend in the violist, Maureen Murchie, who is along for the ride with me. It feels like I’m having a fun conversation with a friend through music, in a way that doesn’t always happen when I’m playing solo violin. Mozart, with his incredible skills as a composer and artist, managed to infuse a very virtuosic and entertaining concerto with a sense of friendship, and it’s just so fun! I mean, when you can share fun with another person, life’s great! This is a special piece to me. It’s impressive. I often think that Mozart’s got a little twinkle in his eye when you get towards the end and he says: “Oh, you think you’re done? Well, try this.” And he makes us do a lot of agility right towards the end.
You’re a founding member of the Eybler Quartet and you play with them also for educational purposes as you serve on the faculty of EQ, the Evolution of the String Quartet, at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity. What are your mission and your philosophy as an educator?
I love teaching. I see one of my responsibilities as a concertmaster to support not only the colleagues who are currently in my orchestra but the next generation of colleagues as well. I’ve had so many opportunities in life that I owe this support, I need to pay it forward, I need to help the next generation become better than I am, to be amazing artists in their own right. So, one of the ways I like support the next crop of artists is by teaching, which I want to do even more of. My teaching at the Banff Center and elsewhere has taught me so much that sometimes I feel like I should be writing my students “thank you” letters, because often, I find myself coming out of a lesson thinking, oh I just figured something out. It’s a really important part of my life.
Because of my performing schedule I haven’t been able to dedicate a lot of my time to teaching, but I am starting to be able to do that more. I also think it’s important for classical music’s future to expose younger people to what we do in any way possible, either by playing or singing, not necessarily in order for them to become performing artists unless they want to, but so that when they have time in their life and they’ve had that early exposure to classical music, they might go to a concert or listen to a recording. Early exposure is really key for people to enjoy music of all kinds.
I also think that some of it has to do with the way classical music is delivered, the way it’s introduced to young people. You have a very “cool” look and that can help, in our very visual culture; let’s say, a teenager might see you play and say: “hey, early music can be cool if cool-looking people are playing it, so maybe I should try to listen more.” Unfortunately, there are still so many stereotypes out there about the “heaviness and antiquity and museum-like feel” of classical music. Some may need the external and the visual to stimulate them to explore further, as long as it doesn’t sacrifice the quality. And you are a great combination of both, the “hip” look and the virtuosity. Any thoughts on this?
I hope that, if necessary, that combination can help young people get interested. I know that I have a striking look on stage. But I would encourage an artist to be absolutely committed to being themselves. The reason why I feel okay about the way I look is because it’s really genuine; it’s just me. I’ve seen performers look every different kind of way under the sun on stage and I’ve been completely moved by their performance when they are genuinely committed to their art. So, I don’t know… these are interesting questions… I think everyone needs to just be themselves if they can. That’s easier to say than do, sometimes.
How do you see the current state of classical music in general?
Now that I’m not a beginner in my career and I’ve been performing professionally for a couple of decades, I can reflect back and remember that, even when I was just starting, people were very alarmed about the state of classical music. It’s not that I don’t think classical music needs a lot of support, because it does. From my perspective, more people are listening to classical music than ever before because of access, especially through the internet. I don’t see classical music as being in an emergency position. I think it’s in a seriously-needs-support position. But that gives me a lot of hope. Because what we’ve all gone through in the past two years has been so difficult, yet classical music is coming back. I take a lot of comfort from that, and it makes me want to work even harder to make sure that future generations can also have access to this incredible art!
Any special message for your NYC fans who cannot wait to hear you in person on December 14th?
I just want everyone in New York who loves music to know that we, musicians, have been waiting to be with you again. And we can’t wait! I’m delighted to be appearing with American Classical Orchestra; they’re a wonderful organization and one of the absolute jewels of New York, and indeed of the whole country. I appreciate Tom Crawford, and everybody who supports American Classical Orchestra so much. So, let’s have a fun party together, through music!
Discover more about Aisslinn Nosky.
Don’t miss the much-awaited opportunity to experience Aisslinn Nosky’s artistry live on Tuesday, December 14, with American Classical Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall. Purchase your tickets today!
Featured photo: Aisslinn Nosky performs with ACO on 3/12/2020 at Alice Tully Hall. Photo by Nan Melville; Courtesy of American Classical Orchestra
Photo of Aisslinn Nosky by Sian Richards. Courtesy of Aisslinn Nosky
Photo of Aisslinn Nosky and Thomas Crawford preparing Hayden Sinfonia Concertante 2018. Photo by Claudia Raschke. Courtesy of American Classical Orchestra