Nico Muhly, contemporary-music composer, growls
Photo by Nina Corcoran
“The opera is the most-hungry monster on my desk right now,” the prolific composer Nico Muhly says in a telephone interview, “and I need to get back to it the minute I get off the phone with you.”
Other things on his to-do list this summer day include some additional live orchestrations for the pieces on Planetarium, an album he co-wrote with indie-rock tastemakers Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner (of The National), and a score he’s writing for a BBC television program. His eclectic body of work also includes scores for the New York City Ballet and for a 2013 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.
Muhly, 35, is an in-demand composer on the rise. Berkshire audiences will get a close hearing of his latest work this summer: commissions for Tanglewood Music Center’s (TMC) Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) as well as Emanuel Ax’s series of concerts at Tanglewood celebrating and responding to the work of Franz Schubert. (Muhly’s piece for the festival will be performed by a six-person ensemble on August 13; Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Pamela Frank, and a group of TMC vocalists will perform the other piece four days later alongside works by Schubert.)
These commissions continue a recent trend for Muhly, who wrote a piece last year for the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI), of which he’s an alumnus, plus another commission on the occasion of the Aston Magna Music Festival’s 40th-anniversary season in 2014.
Even when not debuting new work, Muhly has been a regular visitor to Tanglewood since his days at BUTI. “I feel like it’s not summer unless I go,” he says.
The latest work by a young, white-hot composer is not the first thing most people think of in regard to Tanglewood. But contemporary music has played a visible role there, going back at least to the 1940 creation of the advanced-music–education program known these days as TMC. Aaron Copland, that fierce advocate of American music, was an original faculty member. Benjamin Britten’s great opera Peter Grimes was actually a commission first performed in America by TMC fellows at Tanglewood, under the baton of a recent graduate by the name of Leonard Bernstein. And the Festival of Contemporary Music, an outgrowth of the TMC, has been an anchor of Tanglewood’s summer schedule since 1964.
This year’s festival, August 10 to 14, spans five days of highly eclectic concerts of work by contemporary composers, performed by TMC fellows. The centerpiece is a set of programs guest-curated by some bright lights of the contemporary music world: pianist Jacob Greenberg; cellist Kathryn Bates of Del Sol String Quartet; and TMC alumna Nadia Sirota, violist for the ensemble yMusic and creator/host of the Peabody Award–winning podcast “Meet the Composer,” which has emerged as a surprise hit.
Sirota, a onetime Juilliard School classmate of Muhly, programmed the concert that includes his new commission, plus work by David Lang, Thomas Adès, and others. As fans of her podcast know, she’s a passionate advocate for living composers.
“I feel like this is one of the most exciting moments ever for contemporary music. There are tons of unbelievably talented charismatic composers writing brilliant, gorgeous pieces,” she says, “and I wanted to create a program that to me really reflected people who write music that as a first-time listener to contemporary music, you can be taken by immediately. And the further you get into it, the further you tease it apart, the more brilliant the piece reveals itself to be.”
Muhly describes the piece he wrote for the festival, “Clip,” as “a sort of deranged motor music.”
“A lot of my music contains that kind of hyper-awareness of mechanism and a kind of rhythmic insistence,” he says, noting that he perceives great emotion in the minimalist work of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. “If you look at old machines, old mechanisms, I think there’s an incredible poetry and beauty and melancholy to a clock or to a watch.”
Though he frequently visited his friend Sirota when she was a TMC fellow, this is Muhly’s first participation as an artist in the Festival of Contemporary Music. He says its presence amid the rest of Tanglewood’s programing is a boost to people in his line of work.
“In the context of a lot of more traditional classical-music programming, it feels like the contemporary music is the obligatory Brussels sprouts at Thanksgiving, the thing that no one really wants,” he says. “The way the FCM co-exists with the festival atmosphere of the BSO’s programming, it makes the whole thing feel pretty magical and composer-specific in a really good way. It feels as if our contributions are valuable.”