Nico Muhly's 'Viola Concerto' to receive U.S. premiere with Detroit Symphony

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 - 12:32pm

New York-based composer Nico Muhly is one of the most talked-about artists working in the contemporary music scene today, and certainly the most talked-about composer of his generation. At 34, he’s relatively young in terms of the classical scene, and his meteoric rise to fame has been bolstered not only by the fact that he writes concert music with great skill and astonishing rapidity, but also by his interest in modern themes and contemporary life.

This week, Michigan will get a taste of Muhly’s music, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra gives the U.S. premiere of his new Viola Concerto.

Much of Muhly’s fame is also derived from his collaboration with artists of other genres. In the past, Muhly has worked with the Icelandic experimental singer-songwriter Björk, the rock band Grizzly Bear, the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Sufjan Stevens and the indie rock band The National, among others. This week in Detroit, he will be performing with violist Nadia Sirota and the Detroit-based Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond. This cross-genre collaboration is a key part of Muhly’s artistic identity, but he also comes out of a strong classical music tradition.

Raised in Providence, R.I., Muhly’s first musical studies came in the form of piano lessons and singing in an Anglican boy choir.

“I was sort of a lousy pianist as a kid, you know, just in the way that kids play piano,” Muhly said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “Then simultaneously, I was singing in a boys choir in Providence, sort of through the Anglican church there — and I just sort of fell in love with that music and that musical tradition, which is to say the sort of choral music of the 1600s in England, and to a certain extent in Northern Europe,” Muhly said.

Linking his early influences to his work, Muhly explained his first efforts in composition.

“Essentially, I started writing around that time, and the first things I was writing were obviously piano music and choral music, the stuff to which I had access.”

Muhly’s musical education continued more rigorously in his late teens. “I did this sort of high school program at Tanglewood,” Muhly said, speaking of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, one of the world’s premier summer training programs for high school musicians. Located in Lenox, Mass., BUTI is near the Tanglewood Music Center, which serves as the summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and has a long history of association with renowned composers, most famously Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Following his graduation from high school, Muhly ended up in New York, enrolling in the Columbia-Juilliard Joint Program, where he studied English and Music Composition, respectively. At Juilliard, Muhly studied with Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano, both Pulitzer Prize winners and two of best-known living American composers.

“You know, Corigliano — my first lesson, he was like, ‘Here are all the things wrong with your music, and here are all the things we’re going to fix,’ ” Muhly said of his teacher. “We were kind of working on a problem together, and that’s an incredibly useful thing.”

Following his graduation from Juilliard, Muhly found great success. He has already been commissioned to compose works for some of the most prestigious ensembles in the world, including the Chicago Symphony, the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra, the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. For the last two of these he composed his opera Two Boys, which premiered with the ENO in 2011. The opera is a fine example of his modern sensibilities, which are part of his appeal. Taking its story from actual events in the early 2000s, the opera follows a disturbing tale of digital deception on the Internet and a bloody stabbing by a young boy.

Muhly’s Viola Concerto gets its U.S. premiere on Friday and will be played again Sunday afternoon. Co-commissioned by several ensembles across the world, the piece was composed for soloist Nadia Sirota and was first performed in Madrid earlier this year. Muhly and Sirota were students together at Juilliard and have established a close artistic relationship in the decade since their time in school.

“We were — and still are — close friends,” Muhly said of Sirota. The two began talking about the idea of Muhly composing a concerto for her a long time ago, and though the idea has only recently come to fruition, Muhly has in the subsequent years written a large amount of other music for Sirota.

“It’s probably almost an hour of music, for either solo viola or viola and one other instrument,” Muhly said of his works for Sirota. “I became fluent in viola through her, if that makes sense.”

“I knew I wanted it to fit really really comfortably in her body,” Muhly said of his new concerto, the largest scale composition he has written for Sirota.

Muhly also spoke about what it was like to compose a concerto — a very old type of piece with a long tradition — for an instrument that has not frequently been treated to the form.

“In a weird way, I’m not as intimidated by the tradition as I would probably with a violin concerto,” Muhly said, “because that stuff is scary, because there are so many great ones. There’s no reason for any of the rest of us to try.”

Muhly proceeded to discuss the concerto’s aesthetics, explaining some of the choices he made when composing the piece. Regarding its form, Muhly talked about his reasoning in using a traditional approach to the movement structure.

“Honestly, I sort of like the traditional three-movement structure. It feels to me like you can show off all the things the instrument can do.”

Muhly also spoke about some of the unusual aesthetic choices he made regarding the piece.

“This is organized in a very traditional fashion,” Muhly explained, “The weird thing I did is there is a very quiet scherzo. So there isn’t like a fast rip-roaring thing, there’s a kind of subtle shimmery business towards the end.”

Aside from the formal aspects of the concerto, Muhly explained that what it really is about is “what I think about (Sirota’s) instrument, what I think about her as a musician,” meaning that, as is so frequently the case, the music ultimately has a tremendous amount to do with the relationship between the performer and the composer.