Nico Muhly, the Britten Sinfonia, and Friends at the Barbican.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mazzoli, Pallett, Muhly: Oliver Coates (cello), Pekka Kuusisto (violin/director), Britten Sinfonia, André de Ridder (conductor)Nico Muhly (keyboards), Doveman (Thomas Bartlett) (keyboards), Owen Pallett (cello and voice), Nadia Strota (viola), Sam Amidon (guitar and voice), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Oliver Coates (cello), Thomas Gould (violin), Barbican Hall, London. 16.3.2012. (CG)

Missy Mazzoli: Violent, Violent Sea (European première)
Owen Pallett:  Violin Concerto (World première)
Nico Muhly:   Cello Concerto (World première)
An 802 Momentinformal songs and pieces.

Dear reader, you probably know it already, but the Britten Sinfonia is one of the very best ensembles to be found anywhere. It is blessed with string players to die for, with simply wonderful wind and brass players too, and anybody brought in for special purposes has to be of an equally astonishing standard.

The composers featured tonight, therefore, were fortunate. They surely could not have wished for more enthusiastic and polished performances, undoubtedly helped by the German conductor, Andre de Ridder, with his sure direction. And the Sinfonia has been highly instrumental in promoting Muhly in various concerts over the past couple of years or so. As a result of this, performances by some other orchestras and choirs, and the opera Two Boys recently premiered by ENO, Muhly might be as popular here as in his home town, New York. He and the very different Thomas Adès are most frequently quoted as the young firebrands of today.

And what of the music? It has to be said that one has to crawl through an awful load of hype to reach Nico Muhly and his comrades. Here are some samples: ‘Think Muhly, think youthful no-rules classical, full of cross-genre inventiveness.’ (BBC Music) ‘The hottest composer on the planet’ (Daily Telegraph.) ‘A new wave of musicians have (sic) revitalised the contemporary music landscape, eroding the boundaries between rock, classical, electronica and folk – making richly-textured music for adventurous listeners.’ (Barbican programme)

Now to be fair to the 29 year-old Muhly, he reportedly hates the hype; when you’re built up into a colossal revolutionary genius, it’s all too easy for the reality of the music to be disappointing and for some to come along and carp. Nevertheless Muhly is excellent at promoting his own work (nothing wrong with that!) and his web site is a model for other composers to follow. Muhly is a child of his times, brought up with Apple computers, synthesisers, samplers, sequencing programmes and the internet, and he uses everything to hand perfectly naturally.

The first two works tonight were not by Muhly, but by two of his colleagues with whose thinking Muhly must be completely in sympathy. The first of these, Missy Mazzoli, found that studying with Louis Andriessen was life-changing and has also been much influenced by Philip Glass. Violent, violent Sea is anything but violent for much of the time. It makes much of two or more textures going on at once – vibraphone and/or marimba playing repetitive filigree passages, with slow moving harmonies in the strings – sometimes moving “conventionally,” and sometimes not. The strings also contribute active passages, and the title does feel more and more appropriate.  – it’s a perfectly attractive and effective piece, if not earth-shattering.

With Pallet’s Violin Concerto, three separate influences are described in the programme note: Bach, the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, and Ligeti. Unfortunately I found some of the material, repeated over and over again in the manner of Philip Glass, somewhat trivial, although Pallet’s textures for the strings and percussion are frequently interesting. The second movement had more verve, and the third movement, with much use of quarter-tones, is presumably where the Ligeti influence comes to the fore; for me this became a bit of a trial. With the last movement we were back to minimalistic repetitions of rhythms and short figures.

Muhly’s own Cello Concerto had more meat. I enjoyed some of the contrasting textures; Muhly uses pizzicato strings and quiet chordal motifs to great effect, and there’s good use of growling trombone snarls. Sometimes I felt the orchestral parts to be more interesting than the solo part, which wasn’t always clearly audible, although played with obvious involvement by Coates. In the second movement, Glass-influenced repetitive passages are back to the fore. Then it suddenly turns into something rather funereal – and ends.

After the interval, the lighting changed to a moody blue, and the stage was completely rearranged; no more Britten Sinfonia – now it was the turn of Muhly and guests to sing some songs and play various pieces in an informal jam session. This was really two concerts and, strange as it may seem, the disparate nature of parts one and two served to emphasise the differences rather than the commonality of two different types of music making.

So, is Muhly “the hottest composer on the planet?” If you say so, yes; the hall was choc-a-bloc, and the age of the audience was mostly 30-minus. (Incidentally, it had also been full the night before for the LSO with Brahms, Strauss, and Mahler, but I suppose we cannot call them “hot.”) But all that hype – is it justified? Muhly and friends are instantly likeable, energetic, enthusiastic, refreshing, and we should applaud the way they move easily between pop music and non-pop. In Part Two, with his introductions at the piano, Muhly also revealed himself to be quite an entertainer. But here’s the rub; was there anything at all tonight that bowled me over with its startling originality, or even strength of character? Sadly, no. Steve Reich was doing some of this stuff years ago, and so was John Adams. Come to that, so was Philip Glass in his way, although I’ve never personally considered his work to be quite the match of the other two. And then there are those songs and other pieces forming Part Two; it was all okay and well done – but no more, and I’d rather have been listening to someone like Jimmy Webb from the 70’s or 80’s (and still going strong), or umpteen folk artists from yesteryear – and has Nico Muhly listened to Keith Jarrett on the piano? A rhythmically clever and tricky piece for the viola allowed Nadia Strota to display her considerable technical skills, and yet when all was said and done I left the hall feeling decidedly “so what?”

But then I haven’t ever believed that minimalism in music – which, whether they admit to it or not, provides the essential building blocks of this latest “New York School” – could be any more than a fascinating, and perhaps purifying episode in music history, but other means of moving forward have been found, and a darn sight more interesting I feel them to be. With all that natural talent, don’t Muhly and friends need to push themselves further now? It will be interesting to see what he produces for the National Youth Orchestra.

Christopher Gunning