MUHLY Seeing Is Believing
GIBBONS (arr. Muhly) This is the Record of John
MUHLY Seeing is Believing; Motion; By All Means; Step Team
Thomas Gould (electric violin), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon.
Decca 478 2731
At 29, Nico Muhly is America’s hottest young classical composer;
as such, he is getting attention all over the planet. His first opera,
Two Boys, received its world premiere by the English National Opera in June in advance of its arrival at the Metropolitan Opera, which commissioned it, during the 2013-14 season. In August, the sibling pianists The 5 Browns will premiere his newest orchestral work, The Edge of the World, a Ravinia Festival commission, with the Chicago Symphony under James Conlon, at the orchestra’s summer home in Highland Park, Illinois.
Now at hand is Seeing Is Believing, a collection of Muhly’s works for chamber ensemble that represents his third CD for Decca. (The previous releases, both appearing late last year, are A Good Understanding, a collection of a cappella and accompanied choral pieces, with Grant Gershon directing the Los Angeles Master Chorale; and I Drink the Air Before Me, an extended dance score, using a small instrumental ensemble and the Young People’s Chorus of New York.) The New York-based Muhly is a former boy chorister, and his obsession with the textures, harmonies, lines and fervent rapture that inform the Anglican choral tradition emerges as an important shaping influence in his own music.
The nine-minute By All Means, composed on commission from the Juilliard School and London’s Royal Academy of Music, is a highly original response to Anton Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments (Op. 24), using the same instrumentation but reconciling it with the contrapuntal pull of a church motet by the 17th-century English composer Thomas Weelkes. “My brain tries to turn 12-tone music into post-Wagnerian tonal harmonies,” Muhly confesses in his liner notes. I’m not sure I exactly hear Wagner in Muhly’s bright, hard-edged sonorities, but the listening experience is fun all the same.
Similarly, Motion is a trope on fragments of an anthem by Orlando Gibbons that compresses a series of nervous, overlapping rhythms
in little over seven minutes. Step Team, written for the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series, casts the bass trombone in a hieratic role within an ensemble of nine players. Fractured rhythmic unisons eventually give way to individual musicians and groups of musicians slowing down or speeding up against the basic pulse. If Muhly
borrows from Stravinsky’s off-kilter neo-classicism and Philip
Glass’s percolating minimalism, he does so craftily, with a sassy grin
on his face.
The title track, Seeing is Believing, is the longest piece on the disc:
a single-movement concerto for six-string electric violin – here, the frisky fiddler Thomas Gould, leader of England’s Aurora Orchestra. Muhly took his inspiration from both the ancient practice of mapping the star-filled sky and the sound of 1980s’ classroom science videos
he surely was too young to remember much of.
The work starts out strongly, with loopy and looping string glissandos giving way to scuttling “insect music” in the winds. Various transformations occur before the violin soars into cosmic infinity with gently fluttering tremolos. There are beguiling moments that show off the coloristic range of the solo instrument, but, at just over 24 minutes, Seeing is Believing does seem to meander at times.
Muhly’s relatively ‘straight’ orchestral arrangements of brief choral pieces by William Byrd and Gibbons add to the attractions of this engaging, beautifully played, excellently recorded release.