The 5 Browns unveil new Muhly work at Ravinia

August 10, 2011
By Gerald Fisher

The 5 Browns premiered Nico Muhly's "The Edge of the World" Tuesday night at Ravinia.

A rousing performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony by James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was the clear high point of Tuesday’s night’s concert at Ravinia, upstaging a world premiere by Nico Muhly and five-piano arrangements of music by Holst and Saint-Saens featuring the popular Brown siblings.

Nico Muhly is seemingly tireless: at 29, he is a prolific composer, arranger and spokesman for his own music.  Muhly has his hand in a myriad of projects including choral works, movie soundtracks, ballets, arrangements for rock groups and prestigious commissions from established musical institutions.

The 5 Browns, with their clangorous pianomania would seem to provide an ideal medium for a post-minimalist like Muhly to employ in an extended work. The Edge of the World, unveiled Tuesday night, took these emotive young musicians and their signature wall of sound in a more abstract manner as part of a larger symphonic fabric.

Nico Muhly

The Ravinia commission was less a concerto for five pianos than an impressionistic suite of four contrasting movements, which the Vermont-born Muhly in a brief preface described as nocturnes. The first section is Muhly’s take on Iceland (he has worked with the Icelandic artists Bjork and Jónsi from Sigur Ros). Rhythmic bursts of minimalism are punctuated by instrumental highlights utilizing higher strings and various winds, brass and percussion. The second movement, inspired by the American west, employs brass and percussion against a bed of burbling pianistic arpeggios with paired clarinets in looping unison suggestive of Copland’s cowboy music.

The third section, according to the composer, is the musical equivalent of early maps depicting the world as flat. Here light touches of percussion and a floating trumpet hover around unison strings with the pianos concluding on some dark chordal tones. The night sky served as Muhly’s inspiration in the final movement, the most dynamic of the four, with the nervy pianos joined by the deeper brass instruments filled out by trumpets and a full contingent of strings. The piece ends quietly.

The Edge of the World is not groundbreaking and shows influences from Phillip Glass and, more to the point, the early Steve Reich of Music for 18 Musicians. Although there are moments of Muhly’s individual voice, the work overall feels like a minor effort with some nice touches of orchestration.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is by contrast, of course, a blazing work of genius, probably this composer’s most popular and characteristic work. Tuesday’s performance was exemplary in many ways, not least in the playing of the CSO at full heat. James Conlon led confidently and, in the folkish second movement, idiomatically.

The four contrasting movements were tackled on their own terms with the ambivalent early motifs of the first movement leading to impassioned and lyrical contrasting sections with superb oboe, flute and violin solos standing out. The strings were a suave and persuasive underpinning, taking the lead aggressively as required.

The Largo third movement is the heart of this work, and the hushed breathing of the opening building to more intense and overtly emotional sections was well handled, the conductor never losing control of the sprawling line. Just perhaps a bit of tenderness was missing in this driven interpretation, which led with only the briefest of pauses into the all stops out final Allegro. Nothing lacking here, one could only revel in the CSO’s virtuosity.

The Ravinia pavilion provided a well-balanced sound throughout yet the handling of the video projections proved hit and miss with well-chosen shots in the Shostakovich but some total misses in the Muhly work.

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