Seeing is Believing – The Music of Nico Muhly [Kings Place 5 & 7 May 2011]

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

Purcell, arr. Britten

Chacony in G minor


Piano Quartet movement in A minor

Gibbons, arr. Muhly

This is the Record of John




String Trio in B flat, D471


String Quartet No.2, Op.36


The Unanswered Question


Kammermusik No.1 – Finale


Seeing is Believing

Couperin, arr. Adès

Les barricades mystérieuses

Byrd, arr. Nico Muhly

Two Motets


Chamber Symphony

Thomas Gould (electric violin)

Aurora Orchestra

Nicholas Collon

Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, King’s Cross, London

Thursday & Saturday, 5 & 7 May 2011

A month in advance of the official release of its first recording, the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon hosted a couple of concerts based around the music of young Vermont-born, New York-based composer Nico Muhly. Muhly arrived on the day of the first concert and will be around up to the premiere of his Metropolitan Opera commission that receives its world première at the London Coliseum in Bartlett Shar’s English National Opera production on 24 June.

Muhly – tall and rather gangly in black; earnest and wilful by turns and talking as much with his hands as in words – is what can only be described as an eclectic enthusiast. As he himself admitted in his interview with Sara Mohr-Pietsch before the second concert, he hasn’t found any music yet he’s bored by, and his enthusiasms are very infectious. He might be cooler on 19th-century romanticism, but that’s mainly because he was so overwhelmed by Renaissance polyphony (particularly Tudor sacred music) by singing it when young.

Not only does he have an enviable ‘classical’ career, but has an enormous clientele of artists he collaborates with on ‘non classical’ albums – particularly the Icelandic contingent, from Björk to Jónsi and Sigur Rós, as well as Antony and the Johnsons and two guitarist/vocalists he invited to Saturday’s late-night jam, Puzzle Muteson and Luke Ritchie. Here Muhly (despite his protestations that he was not a good piano-player at school) bent over the upright piano, nose almost on the keys, accompanying the atmospheric, slow songs of both Muteson and Ritchie, along with Thomases Gould and Brander on violin and cor anglais respectively. Muhly’s concern for music (and not just certain types of music) elicited a strong reaction to those who were talking during this subtle musical set, suggesting in no uncertain terms that those drinking and chatting should be listening; and I was not the only one to muse on the fact that the very drinkers and chatters were probably exactly those that would hush anyone who would dare flex a muscle and creak a chair in a concert hall. The situation seemed to clearly delineate a musical snobbishness that Muhly’s musical DNA simply cannot countenance.

What’s fascinating is how joyous Muhly’s music is. He revels in the possibilities of music and seems, on the strength of the works at these concerts and on this disc, to accentuate the positive. How his music will accommodate what is reputed to be the rather serious subject of Two Boys (an Internet suicide-pact or some such) will be fascinating to hear, although his more introspective arrangements for Muteson and Ritchie might point the way.

The other overriding facet of Seeing is Believing is the skill at programme-building. The first concert featured soloists of the Aurora Orchestra (Nicholas Collon only involved in a pre-concert talk with the disc’s producer, and composer in his own right, John Rutter), began and started with a chacony – neatly capturing Muhly’s early and modern musical interests in Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor to start and Britten’s tribute to Purcell for the 300th-anniversary of his birth, the Second String Quartet, which ends in a movement called ‘Chacony’. In between, the old and the new were reflected in Muhly’s gorgeous Gibbon arrangement from This is the Record of John and his own counting obsessed Motion, which ends with a nod to Gibbon, using fragments from See, see the World, as frenetic interchanges between solo strings, clarinet and piano weave in and out, with the use of silence threaded through like an extra instrument. And, from a more romantic milieu, there was Mahler in his only chamber work, his student Piano Quintet movement, and Schubert, in the single-movement String Trio.

The Aurora soloists – violinists Thomas Gould and Jamie Campbell, violist Max Baillie, cellist Oliver Coates, pianist John Reid and clarinettist Peter Sparks – were relaxed and eloquent. King’s Place is a naturally resonant space and this concert, as beautifully programmed as performed, was an exquisite gem.

My worry two nights later was that the King’s Place Hall One stage would be too cramped for the full forces of the Aurora Orchestra, with its plethora of stands, chairs and microphones. The concert marked a number of firsts, principally the first live webcast of an Aurora concert, not only via the Aurora Orchestra’s website, but also The Guardian website, not surprisingly given that the newspaper’s new home is in the upper levels of Kings Place. Yet, somehow, the twenty players fitted comfortably.

Again there was a clever programming streak, inspired by the title of Nico Muhly’s concerto for electric violin, Seeing is Believing, as Nicholas Collon explained while we waited for the web broadcast to kick in. The composers of both opening pieces wanted a visual effect for their works. Charles Ives in The Unanswered Question ideally wanted his string ensemble off-stage and only the winds and trumpet visible. Here, the string players turned their backs on the audience which did seem to have an aural affect, as Ives’s eerie musical poser weaved its curious spell. In answer, with the minimum of stage fuss (extra players, including an accordionist, sitting silently through the Ives), was a favourite of the Aurora Orchestra, as it opened its first-ever London concert back in 2005, Hindemith’s Kammermusik No.1 – here just the finale. Hindemith wanted to destroy accepted musical presentation and desired the players to be hidden from view, but no concession to that was made on this occasion. Rhythmically direct and typically astringent, the finale (specifically dated 1921) includes a quote for trumpet of a popular foxtrot of the time, in G, while each of the other eleven instruments play scales in all the other major keys around it. As a contrast to the ethereal Ives it worked brilliantly and led into the work that gave these concerts its title.

Seeing is Believing was commissioned by the Aurora Orchestra for its leader Thomas Gould and his electric violin, with two additional strings, including a low throaty resonance that is an F string. Gould and Muhly have known each other since London college days, and it was Gould who introduced Muhly to Collon back in 2006. The instrument reminded Muhly of the 1980s and an association was born with science-programmes of the day with their synthesised scores. Opening and closing with the added technology that an electric instrument can bring, Muhly uses recorded loops of playback so that Gould can, effectively, play with himself, setting up rhythmic pulses or melodic phrases which are played back from a speaker immediately behind him. What does seem clear is a cosmic atmosphere. The work – played continuously – falls into a number of sections, alternating the soloist alone or very sparsely accompanied – as if travelling in the vacuum between planets – with more fully orchestrated sections – as if passing through an asteroid belt or being pulled in by the gravity of a planet. It’s utterly infectious, with an easily accessible structure and distinctive reference points – such as the wind phrases that recur, burbling between themselves, and an Adams-esque climax of great virtuosity. The music is as glittering as it is winning and there’s a wonderful visual representation of the work, of a medieval-like star-chart, by Aurora’s designer The Partners, which is also used on the CD’s cover and Muhly’s website, as well as beautifully animated in a video presentation.

The concert ended exhilaratingly with John Adams’s extraordinary combination of Schoenberg and American cartoons – inspired by his study of the former while his then seven-year-old son Sam was watching cartoons on the television, which is why the third movement is titled ‘Roadrunner’ and is as frenetic as such a title might suggest. The opening movement, ‘Mongrel Airs’, is a retort to a British critic who wrote that Adams’s music lacked breeding. However, what was perhaps even more impressive in the concert’s second half were modern responses to the Renaissance and Baroque. Muhly’s Byrd arrangements, composed for Aurora, were exquisite enough but it was Thomas Adès’s subtly rapturous orchestration of Couperin’s Mysterious Barricades, which had the wow-factor, imaginatively refocusing the clatter of harpsichord keys and string-plucking into a mellifluous conception for darkly-hued lower-strings and clarinet/bass clarinet combo.

Turning from the live experience to Decca’s release (478 2731)
– the third Muhly Decca disc following the ballet score I Drink the Air Before Me (478 2570) and choral works A Good Understanding (478 2506), it was utter pleasure being able so soon to reacquaint myself with the concerts’ Muhly items. Muhly’s original works are interspersed by the transcriptions, a structure that works incredibly well; the nod to the Renaissance regularly cleansing the palette. The works unique to the disc are Muhly’s Julliard/RCM co-commission By All Means which subtly does what Adams does to Schoenberg and cartoons, by bringing together Webern (specifically the first three notes of the Concerto for nine instruments, Opus 24) and Thomas Weelkes. It’s as audacious as it is successful and you don’t need to know either inspiration to fall under Muhly’s spell. Step Time, composed for Chicago and inspired by that orchestra’s brass section as well as marching bands, features the trombone over what sounds like a demented tango beat that syncopatedly breaks into the slow theme. Its infectious stuff, introducing a dance element, and after a central crisis the music falls into a same-pitch repetition passed between instruments, but eventually the music loses impetus and it gradually slows, winding the disc down to a peaceful ending.

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