5 Questions to Sarah Bob (pianist) about New Gallery Concert Series

New Gallery Concert Series (NewGal) was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary when the pandemic hit. On April 30, 2022, NewGal is set to hold its first in-person event since 2020 celebrating its belated anniversary. “Adopt and Adapt” is an immersive experience, featuring works of musical and visual installations for audience members to explore. Held in collaboration with the Longy School of Music, the program will feature Boston-based visual artist Sharon Berke along with composers Maria Finkelmeier, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Sarah Hennies, Fabiola Méndez, and Fred Onovwerosuoke. Sarah Bob, pianist and President of NewGal, sat down with us to look back on the organization’s storied past in Boston and look ahead at the arts post-pandemic.

Congratulations on reaching 20 years, even if a bit belated! Looking back, how has NewGal grown over the years and become what it is today?

When you ask that, my first thoughts turn to how much we have stayed the same and held true to our original mission! The New Gallery Concert Series (NewGal) presents new pieces of music and visual art, along with the composers and artists who create them. We provide a safe space for our creators to take risks and our community to continue dialogue beyond the hall. Part of our work is to remain open-minded and keep fostering a natural curiosity and appetite for music and artwork by living composers and artists. I started NewGal 22 seasons ago, not only as a way to ensure that I had an avenue to keep on playing the music I wanted to be playing, but also to provide that same opportunity for my fellow courageous and talented fresh-out-of-school friends. Additionally, I saw an opportunity to tap into another creative world that meant a lot to me and immerse myself in: visual art.

Reaching out and initiating contact with people whose work excites and delights us is some of the most rewarding work we are able to do, as it most certainly nourishes the soul. While this has been true since the beginning, one difference now is that I not only turn to my established relationships, but actively seek and create new ones. NewGal is an incredible vehicle to connect with artists as far away as the other side of the world to those in my own backyard. (Literally!) By building these relationships, it is even clearer that our responsibility in programming and reflecting the voices of our neighbors, our community, our world, is a power we must simultaneously celebrate and keep in check. We always push ourselves to go beyond what we are familiar with and explore outside of our own box. While one might think that this implies the avant garde — and, yes, sometimes in our case it does — it also implies jumping into different perspectives, cultures, and processes.

We have accomplished so much over the past two decades – an internationally-acclaimed album of NewGal commissioned solo piano works, close to 100 world premieres, video content, free outdoor movie screenings, the addition of poets and dancers to the mix, the strongest board we’ve ever had – but our belief in the power of community has stayed the same and kept us strong.

“Adopt” and “Adapt” have taken on new meanings for many of us after living through the past couple of years. How did you conceive of the idea for this program and bring it to fruition?

After two seasons of being almost completely virtual, our first in-person event explores the space between us, literally and figuratively. This pandemic has made many of us very aware of our space with both positive and negative discoveries. The internal moving landscape of being adopted and adapting — into a family, a country, or cultural expectation — will be mirrored with the audience as they physically navigate the space exploring different performances. The music and art further the theme of adaptation with messages of resilience, belonging, and empathy in an extremely personal way.

The original concept of “Adopt and Adapt” was born after I visited the studio of my friend and colleague, the visual artist Sharon Berke. As she showed me around, I was moved by the assortment of colors and shapes, the strength and fragility inherent in her work. I was also moved by her usage of words like “unraveling,” “connecting,” “journey,” and “phases” to describe her work. At one point, she unexpectedly stopped in her tracks and said that these were the same words that she uses to describe her own adoption. What a thought! To unconsciously tap into the very essence of who you are or — more provocatively — presume to be. Out of this moment, the seed for “Adopt and Adapt” was planted.

What made you choose these particular artists for the April 30 program to pair together for an installation experience?

Sharon’s art and the implications of her own adoption through her art inspired me to reach out to two musician friends who I knew were adopted. Acting as a friend rather than a colleague, I initiated a conversation asking them if they had ever tapped into their own adoption stories to create art music. Both said that while they were certain that their adoption experiences were formative in their art-making, they had never explored these experiences consciously in their art. After several Zoom meetings with great sensitivity and respect, these brave artists decided to forge ahead with me to create something beautiful from a topic that is too often seen as taboo.

Every adoptee has their own individual story, and our event does not even scratch the surface of the multitude of adoptee perspectives. We are simply giving voice to these particular adoptees, and hope it resonates with people, adopted or not.

New Gallery Concert Series presents "Adopt and Adapt" on April 30, 2022

New Gallery Concert Series presents “Adopt and Adapt” on April 30, 2022

With that said, I’ve also heard from several people – students, strangers, acquaintances, even longer term friends – to share with me that they are adopted, they are curious, and they feel seen and heard by this project. This makes me feel touched and humbled in such a profound way. I am so proud of the participants for already making a difference in our community before the event has even taken place.

To be clear, “Adopt and Adapt” also shines light on ideas of adopting and adapting in terms of a new country, gender, and race. The program begins in the main hall with everyone together to see and hear Jonathan Bailey Holland’s commissioned work for string quartet. As the audience disperses, they will hear a recording made by those same players as a continuation of Holland’s work.

Now the crowd has options. In one room, Fabiola Méndez and her trio will perform pieces from Méndez’s album Afrorriqueña, which is inspired by her experience as a Black Puerto Rican woman, celebrating the pride, joy, challenges, and self-acceptance that comes with adopting and adapting one’s true identity. In another, I’ll be performing a selection of  Fred Onovwerosuoke’s The Twenty-Four Studies in African Rhythms for solo piano. Onovwerosuoke’s music is informed by a lifetime of adoption and adapting to new surroundings, while staying true to his roots. The Twenty-Four Studies in African Rhythms draws inspiration from distinct dances and musical patterns found across the continent.

Also happening simultaneously, the performance of the beautiful work Settle by Sarah Hennies with percussionists Steph Davis and Aaron Trant adapting to one vibraphone on the top of a gorgeous stairwell at Longy. Hennies’ work is concerned with a variety of musical, sociopolitical, and psychological issues including queer & trans identity, psychoacoustics, and the social and neurological conditions underlying creative thought. As the performance concludes, all of the artists and the entire audience will make their way back into the main hall, for the world premiere of Maria Finkelmeier’s the Me you See, a work NewGal commission specific to the event.

There are so many ways of adopting, adapting, and being true to oneself. This project has been so very meaningful in so many ways. Everyone involved – everyone – has their own story to tell.

Sarah Bob--Photo by Erin Shoudy Meyer

Sarah Bob–Photo by Erin Shoudy Meyer

You have been a key figure in the Boston new music scene for quite some time. How have you seen new music evolve in this community?

I am proud to be a member of Boston’s musical community. We support, lift, encourage and advocate for each other’s success. Since I first arrived in Boston for grad school, I have done my best to immerse myself in these kinds of positive environments. Over time, it has gotten easier to find these environments. I think we’re starting to see more nurturing collaboration in the broader community. We have developed an elite level of playing without the elitism, something that is rare in the music world. A recognition of the dignity of our artists as humans and a relentless focus on positive collaboration is at the heart of NewGal.

I am happy to say that another evolution here in town is that many groups and soloists are moving away from solely highlighting white-cis-hetero-male perspectives in music. There is still room for improvement in terms of tokenism, but I am optimistic that growth and progress is happening.

While NewGal recognizes the importance of themed concert events that highlight women, people of color, LBGTQ folks, a particular composer, etc., it has been very important since NewGal’s inception to weave non-mainstream artists and artworks into the fabric of who we are. Whether we commission a four-hand piano work focused on police brutality against Trans people of color, or center an event on the diverse personal experiences of depression through painting and singer-songwriting rock, our audience and participants are integral to the conversation.

Wherever audiences find us, NewGal  will stay courageous in forging new ways – not for the sake of being new, but for the sake of new real connection – in our world of art and music.

How do you envision NewGal will continue to adopt and adapt as we move into our present time and beyond?

Our goal has always been to highlight living voices and perspectives of today, which, to me, means getting as many different voices and perspectives involved. As an organization that focuses on new works, we are constantly adopting and adapting to the current moment. Yes, our programs proudly include care-free and joyful moments, but we also recognize our platform’s responsibility to confront relevant subjects that impact our entire society in hopes of making progressive change. The pandemic forced us to reinvent how we reach audiences virtually, and our online offerings have been more successful than I ever imagined. So while we’re delighted to be in-person again, our virtual offerings aren’t going away, especially during the winter months. But wherever audiences find us, NewGal  will stay courageous in forging new ways – not for the sake of being new, but for the sake of new real connection – in our world of art and music.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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