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NAVO MEANS NEW / NAVO MEANS MUSIC: Performing-arts ‘collective’ vies for attention

Kansas City takes pride in the longevity of its major performing-arts groups, and this is as it should be. But sometimes we get so wrapped up in the celebration of a 30th anniversary here, a half-century jubilee there, that we forget that some of our most important organizations are still in the start-up phase. And quite often these are the very groups that need our attention and support the most.

Shah Sadikov (photo by Russ Mehl) and Véronique Mathieu (photo by Nicole Romanoff) 

One of the more significant of these is NAVO Arts, a professional group of highly accomplished artists, mostly musicians, who since the group’s founding in 2015-2016 has struggled for attention in the midst of the region’s arts cornucopia.

Soon to begin its eighth season, NAVO is the brainchild of several performers from the Kansas City metro and beyond.

The group was just getting off the ground when the pandemic arrived to slow its momentum, but its directors are here to say that NAVO is back and is as relevant, as adventurous, and as fun as ever. Oh, and there’s one other thing that its founding directors, Shah Sadikov and Véronique Mathieu, are almost hesitant to mention: All of NAVO’s concerts are free.

“We have musicians who perform with orchestras and in concerts and on tour around the world,” said Shah, NAVO’s chief executive officer, an Uzbekistan-born, Overland Park-based conductor, violist, and software engineer. “People think that if something is free, it’s not of good quality, and that is not the case at all. … We are bringing world-class performances to our audiences, but free of charge.”

During the last seven seasons NAVO has performed some 80 compositions large and small, including an entire opera (The Magic Flute, with Landlocked Opera), Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (with Owen/Cox Dance Group), Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, symphonies and concertos, a complete cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, major chamber works of Frank Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and Claude Debussy, and large works by composers hardly anyone else in town dares to touch: Pierre Boulez, Alfred Schnittke, Tōru Takemitsu, and Kaija Saariaho, among others.

Ingrid Stölzel is NAVO’s vice president, composer-in-residence, and artistic advisor. / Photo by Christian Fatu

Even difficult works can be made accessible if the performers bring their best game. NAVO’s celebrated performance of Pierrot Lunaire was “a huge success,” Shah said.

“Years later, people still talk to us about that.” Shah’s guiding principle in performing this thorny modernist monument (which was juxtaposed with the composer’s more accessible Transfigured Night) was “to make sure everybody had lots of fun: and because we all had fun, the audience had fun, too.”

NAVO also boasts an official composer-in-residence, Ingrid Stölzel, who is an associate professor at The University of Kansas and serves as NAVO’s vice president and artistic advisor.

The dynamics of NAVO (a name that combines the Indo-Persian word for “new” with the Uzbek word for “music” or “melody”) are twofold: Its performers are driven both by a dedication to the standard classical repertory and by passion for new works by artists of various national and ethnic backgrounds. Collaborations with other art forms (theater, dance, opera, visual arts) are also central to the group’s mission.

This October’s concert, for example, will feature Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s well-established Piano Trio paired with the scintillating 21st-century Piano Trio by Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning American Composer Jennifer Higdon.

Sunnat Ibrahim is NAVO’s co-artistic director

“In all of our projects, we try our best to combine some familiar music with new works that will be a discovery for our audience,” said Véronique, NAVO’s artistic director (and a former University of Kansas professor), who has made an international career performing chiefly contemporary music and is currently associate professor of violin and music chair at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We all feel very strongly about promoting the music of living composers,” she said, “and we look for ways to introduce these works around ‘less intimidating’ compositions.” Because in addition to established composers whose music we hear on a regular basis, she added, “there are just as many undiscovered, underperformed pieces that should have a place in the concert hall.”

A significant part of NAVO’s activities involve outreach, partly under the auspices of the non profit, Reach Out Kansas. (Board President James P. Zakoura, who established Reach Out in 2009 to address the decline in arts funding in the region overall, has been NAVO’s most visible and active supporter.) Musicians embark on “run-out” concert tours of smaller communities, and each year NAVO chooses for its Young Artist Program one or two performers who perform alongside professionals in at least one regular season concert.

Just as important to its founders are ambitions of transcending the category of “chamber music ensemble.” Its collaborations with such groups as Landlocked Opera, Owen/Cox, and local actors are more in keeping with the spirit in which NAVO would like to proceed: although such projects have been scarce because of cost. “These are large projects that cost a lot of money, so obviously fundraising is a big issue,” Véronique said.

Last season’s cello extravaganza, Cellissimo!, featured Sunnat Ibrahim, Pianist Anastasia Vorotnaya, Daniel Veis, Hannah Collins, and Daniel Kettner. / Photo by Russ Mehl

Yet the group’s goal of transcending boundaries remains firm, as it looks forward to a future that includes more collaborations with other organizations: large and small, musical and non-musical.

“What was appealing to us in the beginning was to create something that would be different from the organizations that were already established here,” Véronique said, “and that we would have the freedom to program works that we really wanted to share with the audience.”

For Shah, NAVO is “bigger than music,” it is a force for good in society as a whole. “I see NAVO as a source of social access to inspiration, to higher ideas, to something bigger than just everyday life,” he said. The arts “give hope, they give access to something higher.”

Having a renowned composer on the team has upped NAVO’s game for new-music programming. “I appreciate having my music performed alongside historically established repertoire, which I believe adds context for the listener,” said Ingrid, a significant force in our region’s musical life for more than two decades. “I’m especially excited that this coming season, NAVO is expanding its commitment to diversifying the repertoire by commissioning several new works by women.”

Pianist Brayden Bukenya performed a solo work by Florence Price at a NAVO program this spring (photo: Chicago International Music Competition); Cellist Will Savage was also a NAVO Young Artist.

Cellist and Co-Artistic Director Sunnat Ibrahim curates NAVO’s annual “cello extravaganza,” and this spring for the first time Clarinetist Karen Benda and Bassoonist Eric Stomberg will construct a program featuring wind instruments. “We want to make sure that the other musicians feel like they have a voice in the programming as well,” Véronique said.

Most audiences prefer a program that mixes the familiar with the unknown, so this has become a NAVO guiding principle.

Even as a teenager, Véronique began to ask “why everybody plays the same three concertos all the time, when there’s actually so much repertoire.” For her it’s much more exciting “to play something that is not already in my ears… than to approach a piece already knowing how to play it, without having to think.”

For information about the 2022-2023 season, visit navoarts.com.

—By Paul Horsley

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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