Curating The Stone

By Todd Simmons

Two years ago, John Zorn, 2006 winner of a MacArthur “genius grant” and longtime veteran of the Downtown music avant-garde, opened The Stone at Avenue C and East 2nd St. as a haven for musicians to get paid and be heard in an intimate setting without the usual nightclub distractions. At his 100-seat venue, the music doesn’t have to fight through the racket of clanking silverware or wayward beer bottles, because The Stone serves no food or drink. It also sells no merchandise, and gives 100 percent of each night’s door take to the musicians themselves. That’s not a typo. The Stone takes care of their overhead with donations, benefits and the sale of limited edition CDs in order to pay their musicians to ply their craft. In addition to this innovative arrangement — one that is very appealing to working musicians — a different artist curates the lineup each month, allowing each the opportunity to put his or her own stamp on the stage.

As curator for the month of April, Alicia Svigals is nothing if not eclectic in both her performance interests and the roster she’s chosen for The Stone. Arguably the world’s leading Klezmer violinist, Svigals has performed with the likes of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Itzhak Perlman, John Cale and The Stone’s own artistic director John Zorn. She just wrapped up her first trip to Russia (where customs agents refused to let her return to the States with her own violin since she hadn’t claimed it on the way in, forcing her to leave her favorite instrument with friends) and is eager to see what happens when her latest experiment takes flight.

“It was so much fun to be on the flip side of the coin — giving out gigs instead of trying to get them,” said Svigals over eggs and coffee at The Mudspot on East 9th St. last weekend. Having collaborated with so many different musicians over the years, from recording dozens of albums to touring internationally, she found it refreshing to be the one handing out jobs for a change. “It’s like being Santa Claus — the Jewish Santa Claus. I gave out gigs to like 50, 60 artists who deserved them.”

Zorn asked Svigals to come up with a motif but ultimately encouraged her to do whatever she felt like doing while assembling two shows a night, Tuesday through Sunday, for a month. “He said, ‘Do whatever you want, you have total artistic freedom.’ ” In a day and age when high overhead costs in Manhattan preclude most clubs from casting their nets too wide, The Stone is seeking as diverse a clientele and musical acumen as possible.

As a curator, Svigals found that so much latitude made it challenging to find a single through-line. “He asked me to find a theme but I ended up with three themes instead: female instrumentalists; Jewish music — interesting, weird, different Jewish music; and violin — fiddle styles from around the world, which I love. That’s my passion.”

From the Bulgarian-Balkan folk music of the Ivan Milev Band to the Jewish-Syrian violinist Beth Bahia Cohen, there are so many unusual combinations and pairings that it almost feels like an international music festival rather than a month’s schedule in one East Village venue. “I feel like I’ve assembled the most interesting array of musicians. I wish I could take a sleeping bag and just move in, set up camp with my kids and just watch all these shows,” she said of the lineup that also includes Jessica Lurie, Stephan Wremble, Edison Woods and Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi.

Between teaching Klezmer violin, performing at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, recording and traveling, playing with five projects simultaneously and raising a family, time is scarce in Alicia Svigals’ world. In addition to her curatorial role this month, she will also be sitting in on at least seven of the shows “depending on babysitting availability,” including two of her own headlining gigs — presumably with her backup fiddle.

On Saturday, April 7th, she co-headlines a Stone benefit with John Zorn where she’ll be joined by German New Yorker Uli Geissendorfer and Russian Ilyia Magalnyk. Friday, April 27th she’ll share the stage with Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner, a show that Svigals is clearly looking forward to.

“People use the word genius too much but I think she’s an actual genius,” Svigals says of her regular collaborator. “She’s like a fountain of musical ideas. They come spewing out of her brain. She can’t stop them. And she can’t remember what she did last time she did it. Sometimes it sounds like Shostakovich and sometimes it sounds like Alice Cooper but it always sounds like Marilyn Lerner.”

It sounds as though resident “genius” Zorn has a little competition from the women at The Stone this month.

For information on The Stone visit Alicia Svigals’ website is

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