Bravo to the Aurora Orchestra and a Nico Muhly album

James JollyWed 11th May 2011
Muhly's Seeing is Believing is out in June from DeccaMuhly's Seeing is Believing is out in June from Decca

An RPS Award win and a new disc for Decca

Fantastic to see Aurora Orchestra acknowledged last night with an RPS Award and Saturday night's concert – at London’s coolest classical venue, King’s Place (go there if you haven’t already!) - in which they played music by Nico Muhly, John Adams and others, was one of those events that crossed boundaries and perhaps explained their victory. It attracted a very mixed audience, not your average New Music crowd but something way more diverse. For me it conjured up all sorts of strange conjunctions...

The last time I was at King's Place was to do a public interview with Riccardo Chailly at the International Artists' Managers Association conference, and one of Chailly's passions is the music of Hindemith and specifically the Kammermusiken – Aurora played part of No 1. The last time I heard Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question it was followed by a concerto for electric violin (Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur), and that happened again – Aurora gave us Nico Muhly's Seeing is Believing (Thomas Gould, Aurora’s regular leader, playing a six-string electric fiddle). 

Nicholas Collon's Aurora is a fabulous band, a small but extremely virtuoso group whose musical sympathies are enormously wide. This programme – Ives, Hindemith, Muhly,  Adès and Adams – played to its strengths. The Ives is an extraordinary work by any standards, but for a piece composed 'sometime before June 1908' it must be one of the most prophetic, avant garde (in the exact sense of the words) works of the 20th century. Aurora's strings turned their backs to us while the wind played from the balcony at the back. The solo trumpet (played by Simon Cox) took the fanfares from various spots on the stage. Collon segued the piece directly into the finale of the First Kammermusik of Hindemith and with its frenetic pace it worked perfectly (and gave us a hint of what was to come when we reached the Adams – and must surely have been in Adams’s mind as he wrote his piece).

Nico Muhly's 2008 violin concerto, Seeing is Believing (which has been recorded by these same musicians and which will be released by Decca next month – you can pre-order the album on iTunes), is a fascinating piece. And it's one that once again reveals that Muhly has a compositional voice that deserves serious attention. Given his pedigree as a Philip Glass protégé, a regular collaborator of Björk, and Antony and the Johnsons, and as the composer of the intense and beguiling score to the movie The Reader, you might expect a ‘softer’ harmonic language but what Muhly gave us, thrillingly, is a work that’s rigorous, harmonically challenging and choc-full of imagination. (Is there a more genre-hopping musician around today than Muhly?) Using loop effects, the soloist Thomas Gould would play a phrase and then play over that phrase as it loops back under – the layered effects were glorious. The work revealed Muhly’s fascination with the past – his music often folds time back on itself (as it did later in the concert with two Byrd motets orchestrated and given a very 21st-century garb). Here he references astronomy as proposed by 1980s TV shows and his musical voice wanders widely through styles and his musical fascinations. Towards the end of the concerto the soloist plays 40 repeated notes and the ethereal quality of the amplified violin (which can also descend into deliciously rasping cello territory) gave it an amazingly ‘lost in space’ quality. I really look forward to getting to know this work, and I hope more violinists will take it up. (It’s the sort of thing I can imagine Leila Josefowicz playing and Marin Alsop conducting.)

John Adams’s Chamber Symphony is, surely, a modern classic and he too folds time over on itself – cartoons from the 1950s onto Schoenberg’s vocabulary in his Op 9 Chamber Symphony. It’s a piece of hyper-active creativity and works magnificently – and it couldn’t have been done better than by Aurora and Nicholas Collon. And, more to the point, it was fun! 

The after-show party was less rewarding. Over a glass of wine, a substantial crowd talked through a handful of songs played by Muhly and friends. Muhly himself was clearly annoyed and the whole thing rather called into question why people were there. If you’re in a room with one of the hottest musical properties of the day, and one who's playing the piano just for you, does it not make sense (and display some manners) to listen? Or am I missing something? Or too un-hip? Or too polite? I left. 

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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