Debra Nagy

2022 Mid-Career, Music

Debra Nagy is endlessly passionate about relating the past to the present to create fascinating and inviting concert experiences for today’s audiences. An early music specialist, she’s made it her mission to present “music people won’t hear anywhere else,” prompting The New York Times to dub her chamber music ensemble Les Délices “an early music group with an avant-garde appetite,” and describe her programming as “a journey of discovery.”


Debra embraced the oboe as her primary instrument as a young person growing up just outside New York City. Part of the appeal, she explained, was that no one else played it. A willingness to stand out from the crowd is an essential part of Debra’s personality. “Not only did playing the oboe become an outlet for my own personal expression, but it fostered my strong independent streak."


Debra began her professional studies at the Manhattan School of Music and then enrolled at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. At Oberlin, she found an inspiring and empowering environment, and, coincidentally, fell in love with early music.


Following a January-term intensive for beginning viola da gamba, Debra was offered the opportunity to try the baroque oboe at Oberlin’s annual summer Baroque Performance Institute. Three days into playing the baroque oboe, Debra felt that she had found her true voice. She didn’t look back.


It wasn’t just the expansive early music repertoire and the unique sounds of period instruments that appealed to her; the Early Music movement’s foundational philosophies synced with Debra’s values and her tenacious independent streak. “Early Music was born out of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 70s such that it’s an approach that includes questioning received knowledge and notions, diversifying and expanding repertoire beyond the “canon,” and integrating a more nuanced understanding of cultural context into programs and performance. That felt deeply compelling to me when I started my early music journey and it still drives my work today.”


Debra won a grant to study in Belgium and Holland for a year, before returning to earn her doctorate at CWRU in 2007 and “never left.” She worked as a freelance Baroque oboe player, quickly becoming part of various musical communities throughout the U.S., but felt disconnected from her adopted hometown.


“I was in my late 20s by the time I got my doctorate,” she says. “I was seeking a creative outlet that was closer to home that gave me a raison d’etre for remaining in Cleveland.”


In 2010, a Creative Workforce Fellowship from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture enabled her to launch Les Délices and fund the Cleveland-based ensemble’s first year and a half of concerts.


Inspired by a creative process that brings together research, composition in historical styles, improvisation, and artistic collaboration, some of Debra’s recent projects with Les Délices have included critically-acclaimed multimedia productions of Machaut's medieval masterpiece Remede de Fortune, music from the Leuven Songbook (c. 1470), an acclaimed CD combining jazz and French Baroque airs called Songs without Words, and The White Cat, a pastiche Baroque opera for singers and chamber ensemble with puppetry and projections based on Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy’s 1690s feminist fairytale.


The COVID-19 pandemic spurred further innovation, prompting Debra to reimagine Les Délices’ traditional concert series for the virtual space and create an acclaimed webseries variety show called “SalonEra.”


“During those dark times, Debra stepped up in a meaningful way for a lot of musicians and created a whole new series,” says Karin Brookes, Administrative Director of Historical Performance at The Juilliard School and former Executive Director of Early Music America. “She created a huge number of opportunities for musicians when there was no work, and she shone a light on previously unknown corners of early music that helped people look at in a different way.”


In addition to her work with Les Délices, Debra plays principal oboe with Apollo’s Fire, Boston’s Handel & Haydn Society, and many other ensembles. Debra has recorded more than 40 CDs with repertoire ranging from 1300-1800, and has had live performances featured on CBC Radio Canada, Klara (Belgium), NPR’s Performance Today, WQXR (New York City) and WGBH Boston.


Debra was recently recognized by Early Music America with the 2022 Laurette Goldberg Prize for her community outreach work with Les Délices and previously won first-prize in the American Bach Soloists Young Artists Competition and a 2009 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.