Live Music + Gig Reviews

Nico Muhly @ Barbican, London

16 March 2012

The recent phenomenon of ‘modern classical’ has produced a considerable quantity of excellent music, made by many talented artists and released by some great labels. Yet, the thought persists that despite its unimpeachable qualities it hasn’t quite fully crossed over into or matched the scope and depth of traditional classical music.

Friday’s show at the Barbican however provided evidence that this may be changing. The first half of the two-sided concert featured premieres (two world, one European) of three classical pieces by musical polymaths Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett and Missy Mazzoli. The second half would see Muhly and Pallett perform on stage alongside other musicians.

One of the most immediately pleasing aspects of the opening classical section was how each piece was relatively orthodox in structure and instrumentation – respectful of the traditional formats, yet never subservient to or in awe of them whilst simultaneously injecting them with fresh ideas. Clearly, the composers felt no pressure to attempt to wilfully re-invent the format but rather to augment and contemporise.

Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea was the first of the three pieces played by the Britten Sinfonia under the conductorship of Andre de Ridder, and it evoked the sounds of calm, still seas rather than the stormy variety contained within the title. It successfully depicted gradually forming waves, the strings and woodwind slipping and sliding into each other, held together by some structure-aiding percussion.

Owen Pallett’s Violin Concerto required a smaller ensemble consisting only of strings and percussion. It began with opposing, discreetly polyphonic violin passages that seemed to sit together uncordially, containing instances of subtle friction. Eventually however, these bequeathed a more integrated final movement, soloist Pekka Kuusisto realigning himself with the ensemble before signing off in style.

The world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Cello Concerto saw a larger orchestral presence back on stage. It quickly demonstrated itself to have a fine line in Stravinskyian rhythmical protrusions, whilst also possessing the kind of gossamer textures that seemed to hang over the piece, casting an air of veiled suspense. At times it was reminiscent of the music of fellow American John Adams yet the sharp, fleet-footed nature of the piece raised the question of whether it was too soon to be using the adjective Muhlyian. At the finish Muhly bounds on stage to take the applause of the audience, confidently picking out players for special praise like an old master.

The second half of the show, subtitled An 802 Moment, saw the likes of Sam Amidon, Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) and Oliver Coates join Muhly and Pallett on stage. As they assemble Muhly announces they are “going to keep things loosely disorganised and casual”. On the whole it’s true and in terms of sound it’s some distance away from the first half, beginning with guitar/banjo led folk songs with Amidon and Bartlett sharing vocal duties. Muhly then plays a Philip Glass-like piano piece, Nadia Strota performs a twisted, thorny piece for solo viola and Bartlett half-whispers a soft, misty song by the name of Tigers. They also include a cover of Neil Young‘s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Bartlett and Pallett exchanging vocals as strings mass around them. It’s followed by the title track from Amidon’s excellent 2010 I See The Sign album, aptly described as “an apocalyptic folk song with suitably apocalyptic string arrangement” and tonight sounding just as bruised and troubled as on record.

The highlight of the evening is the performance of The Only Tune, a schizophrenic triptych from Muhly’s 2008 album Mothertongue. He introduces it as “a big messy cauldron of a piece into which many things are thrown” and it takes us on a fairly astonishing journey, uprooting elements of old American folk music and transplanting them into a foreign, disorientating twenty-first century. Amidon’s voice may be the most striking aspect, ranging from delicate sensitivity to ragged hollering, yet behind the scenes Muhly is the personification of restless creativity, darting around the piano and bank of keyboards. At one stage he delivers a series of percussive blows that give the impression he is smashing open a box of musical secrets. Eventually, after several sustained strikes the sounds tumble out in kaleidoscopic fashion. He’s undoubtedly the co-ordinating, unifying force of the evening and part of his genius seems to centre around the fact that there are moments where you can’t quite say with certainty what it is he’s doing, although you know it to be indispensable.

It was hard to leave the Barbican without thinking that the show set a new benchmark against which all contemporary-crossover-folk-classical concerts should be judged. Musically it was ambitious, far-reaching and flawlessly executed. It will be fascinating to see how Muhly’s forthcoming live collaboration with Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner at the same venue in a few weeks will compare.

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Nico Muhly @ Barbican, London