Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: eighth blackbird

with Nico Muhly, composer & keyboards
March 20, University of Richmond

Has any American composer risen as far as fast as Nico Muhly? Nine years ago, Muhly was studying at the Juilliard School. Since then, he has written an opera, “Two Boys,” for the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera; orchestral works for the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Seattle Symphony and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; a film score, for “The Reader,” nominated for an Oscar; and arrangements for albums by Björk, Usher and Rufus Wainwright.

The 31-year-old composer joined eighth blackbird for a sampler of his works, two of them written for the ’birds, and pieces by composers he counts as mentors and influences – Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Tristan Perich.

Glass specifically – Muhly worked for him as a copyist, arranger and conductor – and minimalism generally figure prominently in Muhly’s compositional style; but repeated figures and rhythms are only the foundation of his compositions. His instrumental and electronic writing is as elaborate and decorous as Renaissance polyphony, and his repetition builds into a genuine groove.

Among the four works of his played in this program, “Doublespeak,” introduced last year by eighth blackbird in a concert marking Glass’ 75th birthday, was the most elaborately and playfully voiced, contrapuntal and colorful, the colors especially vivid in sections highlighting woodwinds and mallet percussion. The most orchestral of the lot, curiously, was “A Long Line” (2003), a quasi-fanfare scored for an almost romantically expressive violin and electronica.

“How Soon” (2010) was a sample of Muhly’s long fascination with choral writing (he was a boy chorister) and English literature (his major at Columbia University). The piece is a setting of “Mortification,” by the 17th-century poet George Herbert, sung by a chorus of sopranos and altos – here, members of the University of Richmond Schola Cantorum, directed by Jeffrey Riehl – with moody yet rhythmically pointed instrumentation.

“It Goes Without Saying” (2005), described by the composer as “a slow transition from one thing to essentially the same thing,” is a colorfully sonorous soliloquy for clarinet with electronica combining a harmonium drone, clicking sounds (mimicking the mechanics of the clarinet) and recorded clarinet.

Clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri and violinist Yvonne Lam played deftly and expressively in their duets with electronica; the full sextet (pianist Lisa Kaplan, cellist Nicholas Photionos, flutist Tim Munro and percussionist Matthew Duvall, Lam and Maccaferri) audibly and visibly relished Muhly’s energetic intricacies.

The composer joined Kaplan and Lam to play Perich’s “qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq” (2009), a perky canon for three toy pianos and electronca. Muhly played celesta in a rendition of Glass’ early (1968) “Two Pages.”

Another early minimalist opus, Reich’s “Four Organs” (1970), an extended deconstruction of a single chord, featured Kaplan, Lam, Maccaferri and Photinos on computerized keyboards (whose master unit malfunctioned, requiring a restart) and Duvall on maracas, whose unchanging rhythm tested the percussionist’s stamina, and probably his patience.