Chamber Music Wrapped in Learning and Art

The Aspect Foundation comes with an illustrated talk exploring the theme of each concert. The heart and mind behind these events is a Ukrainian émigré named Irina Knaster, who wants to give you a stimulating experience along with refreshments.

By Roberta Hershenson

 

Ariel Quartet, Aspect Foundation of Music & Arts

Ariel Quartet at the Italian Academy at Columbia University for the Aspect Foundation of Music & Arts in New York on Nov. 1, 2018. Photos by Benjamin Chasteen.
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Though she looked a decade younger, Irina Knaster, a Ukrainian émigré, was nearing fifty when I first met her at a concert last year. A slim and vivacious former international lawyer with an MA in art history and a serious background in classical piano, Irina was born in Ukraine and lived in Russia and London for many years with her husband,  Alexander Knaster, a Moscow-born financier, and their four children. In 2015 Irina and her family moved to New York City to be closer to their parents and two older daughters, who were on the East Coast attending college. What would she do next with her diverse interests?

Focused on her love for learning and the arts, Irina established a New York home for The Aspect Foundation for Music & Arts, a group she founded in London in 2011, presenting its first concert here in 2016. It’s mission is to present chamber music concerts accompanied each time by an illustrated talk exploring the artistic, historical, and musical times of each program.

Don’t think of it as a lecture, she said when I spoke to her in early March at a coffee shop near Lincoln Center. It’s really “a ten-minute-pique-your-curiosity little spiel.”

Aspect’s tagline?  “It’s more than a concert.”  Music is so much richer when it is heard in context, Irina says.

Audiences seem to agree. Crowds now turn out regularly at the intimate Italian Academy of Columbia University, with its marble staircase and red curtains, or at Bohemian National Hall, an alternate venue on the Upper East Side, where clusters of chandeliers evoke an Old World elegance. Guests arrive early, even on the coldest nights, for the complimentary wine and snacks offered  before each event. On the three recent occasions when I attended Aspect concerts, listeners sat in utter silence during the performances, and not a single errant handclap was heard between any of the movements. The audience left knowing a lot more than when they arrived, thanks to the entertaining speakers. 

Concertgoers mingle, Aspect Foundation for Music & Arts

Meet and greet and a free glass of wine before the show. Concertgoers mingle at the Italian Academy at Columbia University. Aspect events also take place at Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side.
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Even newcomers to classical music will find plenty to like at these concerts wrapped in learning and art. “The concept is nerdy enough to attract good people, yet the dynamic is fun enough to attract a young audience,” IRINA said. People in their 30’s and 40’s regularly attend the concerts, along with the usual classical music crowd.

“When Tchaikovsky Met Brahms…” was the title of the March program that I attended, and if it sounds like a takeoff on a Hollywood movie, you are right. Do you know what happened when these two composers first met at a Leipzig dinner party in 1888? Did you even know they were alive at the same time?

Irina admits she didn’t know, but when she found out she devised a program to highlight the relationship of the two giants who clashed initially because neither liked the other’s music. Guess who sat between them at the dinner? You would have learned at the concert that it was the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who changed places with his wife, Nina, when the tension between Tchaikovsky and Brahms became too uncomfortable.

Nicholas Chong, a professor of musicology at Rutgers University, gave the illustrated talk that evening, speaking from the stage as images were projected on a large screen. He had the audience laughing at an illustration depicting Grieg’s seat change, with the composers’ photographed heads superimposed on tiny cartoonish bodies. The images at each concert include paintings, photographs, portraits and other materials that Irina finds, looking to add visual panache and deeper insights to each theme.

The program that March night featured works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg that were performed on violin by Alexander Sitkovetsky and on piano by Wu Quian, a married couple who have each won a 2016 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, Irina is intent on finding high-caliber yet affordable players and giving them an opportunity to play. Emerging artists keep costs down, which is vital to the non-profit enterprise. “The core is it’s not commercial,” she said of the series. “If I had to make a profit or break even, it wouldn’t exist.”

Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Brahms

When Pyotr Tchaikovsky met Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg played referee. Aspect speakers—who are often the musicians themselves—present a look at the historical, artistic, and musical background of each program.
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Financial support for Aspect comes from a diverse group—including her husband of twenty-three years, Alexander Knaster, a Moscow-born financier and a “self-made billionaire” who founded a charitable foundation in 2014 to fight cancer. Despite their success and wealth, the couple lead a quiet social life. As Irina notes they are both “very private people.”

They have three daughters and a son ranging in age from 12 to 28—the oldest is her step-daughter. No wonder that Irina describes herself as a busy mother devoted to teaching her kids the piano and helping them with homework. “Being a mother—a Jewish mother—is a very big thing for me,” she said. She and her husband met through his father and Irina endorses that kind of arranged marriage. They still speak Russian at home and she calls Alexander her “best friend.” “The power of the woman,” she says, is in her husband, emotionally, financially, every way.”

Tall, dark-haired and stylish, Irina is a quiet presence at concerts, preferring to remain out of the spotlight. She can be found moving among groups of people sampling the pre-concert refreshments amid tables set with tablecloths and vases filled with apples. “We want to create a welcoming and beautiful atmosphere,” she said, “Come in, unwind, and have a glass of wine.”

She likes to quote a letter she received after one concert remarking that at Aspect events, strangers were “unusually willing to talk to each other.” For New York, that really is saying something.

Irina Knaster, founder of the ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts, with The Fretwork ensemble

On the left, Irina Knaster, founder of the ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts, with The Fretwork ensemble at The Italian Academy in New York on April 12, 2018.
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The next concert, “Archduke Rudolph: Beethoven’s Patron and Pupil,” will take place April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Bohemian National Hall, 321 E. 73rd Street. The last concert of the season, “Music of the 18th Century Grand Tour” will be presented on May 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Bohemian National Hall. For tickets and more information go to The Aspect Foundation’s website.

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Roberta Hershenson is an arts journalist whose features, profiles, and news stories have appeared in The New York Times and other publications. 

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