The route that Tony Arnold followed to becoming one of the most vital and esteemed singers in new music seems indirect, if not downright random. A self-starter who played every instrument she could get her hands on, Arnold entered Oberlin Conservatory as a piano student, though she never saw her future as a concert pianist. While there she shifted first to vocal studies and then to conducting, which she pursued as a graduate student at Northwestern University and as a career.
At Northwestern she encountered the members of the group Eighth Blackbird, who needed a soprano for a performance of Lukas Foss’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” She signed on, and it proved to be her eureka moment. Within a year she had resigned her conducting engagements, and decided to create a career as a singer focused exclusively on contemporary music.
“It was kind of a lightning-bolt event that was preceded by years and years of musical training of all kinds,” Arnold said recently by phone from a music festival in Innsbruck, Austria. “There was not a moment wasted on what seemed like a kind of circuitous path. It was all the right thing to do at the right time.”
On Wednesday, Arnold and violinist Movses Pogossian will perform what has become a signature piece for them: the Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments,” an hour of fiercely concentrated settings of excerpts from Kafka’s writings. The concert is part of Arnold’s season-long guest artist residency at Boston Conservatory, which will include masterclasses, classroom teaching, working with student composers, and conducting the school’s new-music ensemble. In addition, Arnold, who has lived in Somerville since 2012, recently received the Brandeis Creative Arts Award, with performances and workshops to run throughout the 2015-16 season.
Her passion for the knottier species of European modernism is something of a rarity among singers. How many sopranos do you know who’d say, “If there’s a composer that fits me like a glove, it’s Webern.”
“Yeah, I know,” she added on hearing a reporter’s slight disbelief. “Is that weird?”
Refreshingly, Arnold refuses to take herself too seriously. The URL for her official Web page is www.screecher.com — chosen on a lark after discovering in the late ’90s that www.tonyarnold.com was already taken. “Let’s just say ‘screecher’ because that’s what people think I do anyway,” she remembers deciding. “If I was gonna sing contemporary music, I certainly wasn’t gonna take myself very seriously doing that.”
Still much of the music she’s drawn to registers on a dark emotional level, not least the “Kafka Fragments,” whose fierce emotional compression can intimidate performers and listeners alike. Arnold discovered the piece by chance in a London music store in 1999. “I’ll probably never find a violinist to play this,” she recalled thinking. A few years later, at a music festival in Buffalo, she met Pogossian, who had similarly come across the piece and thought, I’ll probably never find a soprano to sing this.
Their first performance came in 2004. Six months later they were in Budapest, being coached by Kurtág in a series of public masterclasses, an experience that Arnold described as simultaneously enthralling, terrifying, and a landmark event of her artistic life.
“He’s very intense, but his knowledge of music is bottomless,” she related. “He will look at something under a microscope for hours on end. It’s enough to drive you crazy — we would spend an hour on seven notes. But what you learn about how to move from note to note and all the implications — the harmonic implications, rhythmic and dynamic movements . . . He’s one of the few people I’ve met who’s willing to engage the bandwidth of a single moment for indefinite periods of time. And what there is to be gained from that, the implications are just huge —
Asked whether she was ever intimidated while on stage at the beginning of a performance, Arnold said that for her the moment of hesitation — of fear, of doubt — comes just before taking the stage. Once there, though, the obligation of fulfilling her side of the contract, the bond with the audience, takes over, and the uncertainty disappears.
“We play roles, and when you step into a particular role, you lose yourself,” she said. “The role of the performer is to believe in yourself and what you’re doing in that moment, to the exclusion of everything else. And I’ve never had a problem engaging in that artifice.
“It’s a losing myself, but it’s also where I get to be most fully myself,” she continued. “It’s really a paradox. But it’s kind of a place where my full and utter engagement of whatever it is that’s in front of me, it must be that way. If you were to engage every conversation with that kind of intensity, people would go running away from you all the time. So this is a forum to actually do that thing that in polite company is not always welcome.”
With Movses Pogossian At Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory, Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets: free. www.bostonconservatory.eduDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.