15 October 2011

Among the Conspirators

I’m running out of pictures of Nico Muhly.
This one is from his website.

My great trouble, whenever I attend a musical performance in the round, is that, no matter where I am, I always feel I ought to be sitting somewhere else.

This is not to begrudge my excellent press seat at Thursday night’s “conspiracy” between composer Nico Muhly and Gotham Chamber Opera, at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. But especially in Muhly’s performances of his own compositions, some of which use pre-recorded material to accompany the live musicians — to artful, sometimes dreamy effect — I was so conscious of the placement of the loudspeakers, with respect to my chair, that I seldom believed I was listening from the best possible spot.

That said, this was a terrific opportunity to hear more of Muhly’s work and to see the bond between composer and company — which will “conspire” to present the world premiere of his opera, Dark Sisters, next month — strengthen. It’s healthy for both sides: composers need productions, and producers need to deal with composers who can talk back to them. (Most producers could use a lot of back-talk, actually.) Audiences need to hear works by somebody other than the same old cabal of dead guys, and if the living composer is personable and interesting — as Nico Muhly surely is — so much the better.

A scene from Dark Sisters. Photograph from Nico Muhly’s website.

Indeed, Muhly offered some informal observations from the piano during Thursday’s performance, and while I’ve seen him only a couple of times, I begin to think he’s going to chat with us any time he takes the stage. This isn’t considered kosher, at least by some critics, but in Muhly’s case the standard practices really don’t matter. The music could speak perfectly well for itself; the talk could be better organized and prepared, but so what? It’s part of his personal stamp. This is his evening, and if we don’t like it, why did we come here?

Whatever my doubts about the acoustics in Le Poisson Rouge, I was glad to sit facing Muhly as he played: with his entire soul and most of his body. This made an interesting contrast with Neal Goren, whose work I know so much better, but only from the back of his head. Now he played with great feeling (of course), while his demeanor remained stoical, almost impassive. So much of his expression in a performance is conveyed by other people’s faces, to say nothing of the poise and grace he elicits from young musicians.

The evening (lightly staged by R.B. Schlather) was loosely inspired by the theme of evening, and bookended by soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird’s pair of “Evening Songs”: the first, by Purcell, accompanied by Goren; the second, by Glass, accompanied by Muhly, and given an especially sensitive reading by Bird. This was the one glimpse we got of Muhly’s attitude toward other composers, and he didn’t hold back; the song, from Satyagraha, is one of Muhly’s very favorite pieces ever (or words to that effect).*

I was especially pleased with Eve Gigliotti’s account of Kurt Weill’s “Je ne t’aime pas,” usually a hard sell for me because it’s the song I played from Stratas Sings Weill, over and over, when I was in the despairing depths of a necessarily hopeless crush on Teresa herself. Those are impossible odds for any other artist to surmount, but Gigliotti really put the number over, bless her. With Muhly at the piano, she also performed “the world’s slowest mad scene” (as he put it), one of the high points of Dark Sisters.

Mezzo Vanessa Cariddi lent her luscious timbre to two songs by Sibelius, and Michele Angelini, who will appear with the Gotham company later in the season in a revival of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, gave us a preview, with the title character’s “Di che sei l’arbitra.” Violinist Yuki Lee Numata joined Muhly (on piano) for his Honest Music and cellist Clarice Jensen for a Ravel sonata. It was, as you can see, a lively mix of repertoire, as well it should be — given the personalities of the artists and the company involved.

*NOTE: Nico Muhly used to work as an assistant to Philip Glass.

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