First Listen: Nico Muhly, 'Seeing Is Believing'

Originally published on May 2, 2012 2:30 pm

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Nico Muhly has a flair for entrances. His 2007 album, Speaks Volumes, opens with a cello toward the apex of its register that quickly takes a multi-octave plunge. Mothertongue, from 2008, frenetically launches with a repeated high-octane read-through of the alphabet. Last year's I Drink the Air Before Me pierces with a series of staccato arrows paired with more luscious, ominous rumbles, while its sister release, A Good Understanding, is heralded by a bracing organ flourish.

Varied though these opening salvos may be, they always signal a true listening experience. With his newest album, Seeing Is Believing, Muhly doesn't let listeners down: A repeated arabesque on a violin curves and twirls as several additional layers of strings and percussion are added to the spiral, at once complementing and contrasting the title work's first four notes, culminating with the addition of winds. It's not unlike the ever-expanding universe, the mapping of which inspired this concerto for solo electric six-string violin. For nearly 30 minutes, Muhly commands rapt attention, referencing influences from former mentor Philip Glass to Stravinsky, circa Rite of Spring, and Ravel at his most impressionistic.

Muhly boasts a refined sophistication, tempered with a cheeky sense of humor that allows listeners to trust his impulses and musical whims implicitly. For such an invigorating piece, it's a comfort to be able to slip into Seeing Is Believing and go along for the ride, not once worrying about missing a turn or stopping for gas. Thomas Gould and the Aurora Orchestra, in tandem with the composer, are in complete control of this transformative work, opting to pair it with a trio of shorter but equally engaging pieces — Motion, By All Means and Step Team — which show Muhly to be an obsessive student of music history (By All Means is, for example, a response to Webern's Concerto for 9 Instruments), but also in possession of his own unique, and uniquely complicated, voice.

Q2 launches a five-day festival of Nico Muhly's music on June 20.

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