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NYChillharmonic set for Ithaca debut Sunday night at Deep Dive


The NYChillharmonic is a big band. But it's not a big band ala Benny Goodman or Count Basie.

Rather it’s a self-described “female-fronted, Brooklyn-based, 18-piece, progressive-rock orchestra” that draws from a variety of influences – rock, pop, and jazz – to create an “ensemble sound that acknowledges the tradition of jazz as much as it sonically embraces experimental textures, arrangements, and harmonies.”

Led by Sara McDonald, the band’s founder, composer, arranger, and lead vocalist, the NYChillharmonic will make its Ithaca debut Sunday night at Deep Dive.

McDonald always dreamed big when it came to making music. “My parents were classical musicians, so I grew up playing piano and French horn and also singing in musicals,” she said in an interview from her home in Brooklyn. “To me, music always had to be huge, with everything in full production. I was always going to orchestra concerts and concert bands and playing in all these different ensembles at a very young age, and then also being in musical theater, which also has a ton of people involved. That just felt the most comfortable and natural to me.”

Founding the NYChillharmonic enabled McDonald to “marry my love of rock, metal, indie and all that stuff into a larger ensemble in general,” she said.

Indeed, when it comes to composing, “I hear everything all at once,” she said. “The music comes first – I write and arrange everything, and I’ll usually hear a top line, then the orchestration will form around it, and then lyrics will generally come last, just because basing a song around a lyric is very hard for me.”

McDonald cites Bjork and Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg as vocal influences along with indie rockers such Trent Reznor, Grizzly Bear, and Daniel Rossen. “I really love a balls-to-the-wall vocal delivery,” she said. “I don't know if I've totally achieved that yet myself, but I just like going for really passionate singing.”

After releasing its debut album, “1,” in 2019, the NYChillharmonic followed with a few singles: 2020’s “MEAN” and 2022’s “I Don't Even Want It” and “I've Lost It.”

On Friday, April 21, the NYChillharmonic will release its new single, “To Covet a Quiet Mind.” It’s a song of which McDonald is especially proud, as it’s the band’s first release with a full-blown orchestra.

“There it is – it’s been what I’ve been hearing the entire time,” she said. “It needs to be that big for it to succeed, even though I love all the stuff we do as an 18 piece. It’s like, I’m having this thing finally realized, you know?”

“We did it with the big band of 18 people, then we added a 10-piece choir,” she added. “Then I went to Prague, where my friend had a hook-up to a 60-piece orchestra. With overdubs and everything else, when all is said and done, it's probably close to 100 tracks on there.”

The band has more new material to release, including a couple of songs from an October 2021 recording session. “I just finished like a behemoth of a grant application last week – I'm trying to get enough money to make an EP or album of all the orchestral stuff,” McDonald said. “I'll know in June if we have the money to do it. And if not, I will still find a way – I'm not gonna let that deter me.”

If you go

Who: The NYChillharmonic

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: Deep Dive

Cost: $14 in advance, available online here; $20 day of show ($15 with student ID)

Event Info

Note: The NYChillharmonic also will return to the Rochester International Jazz Festival on June 26, performing two sets at the Theater at Innovation Square. Read a review of last year’s JazzFest performance here!

The NYChillharmonic
The NYChillharmonic

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, WITHradio.org) and its affiliates.