Music review: Nico Muhly with the Washington Chorus at Atlas Performing Arts Center

Saturday, June 5, 2010

New York composer Nico Muhly came to Washington on Thursday night to join the Washington Chorus for a concert of his music at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. With this program of works composed since 2002, Julian Wachner, in his second year at the helm of this ensemble, continues to transform a volunteer chorus generally known for performing the chestnuts of the oratorio society repertoire. Wachner pared down the chorus to about 50 singers, with a few professional singers recognized by sight and sound in their ranks, including pleasing solos by soprano Brooke Evers and countertenor John Bohl.

The music showed the influences that give Muhly's compositional style its appeal. A youth spent as a boy chorister provided the background of English liturgical music. The adult years spent working for Philip Glass were heard in some of Muhly's most common tics: the repetition of rhythmic and harmonic patterns; a metronome-like pulse sung on a neutral syllable, recalling Terry Riley's "In C"; and the largely unnecessary use of amplification, which Muhly admitted was just to add reverberation to the sound.

Even the simple formulae of popular music, like the pop song fadeout at the end of "The Sweets of Evening," have their place. The last influence was felt most strongly in the secular music, like the song cycle "The Principles of Uncertainty," a setting of some of the text from Maira Kalman's blog of the same title, now published as a book. As performed by the occasionally shrill countertenor Daniel Gundlach and an odd assortment of instrumental performers, the work came off as a campy Dada-style cabaret monologue.

The critical swooning that swept the 20-something Muhly to early stardom continues largely unabated, raising the inevitable question about whether his music is overrated. The works heard here, pleasant and occasionally intriguing, did not answer the question of whether Muhly is destined to save classical music, but as Muhly himself quipped, anyone who claims to know the answer to that question sounds like a blowhard.

-- Charles T. Downey

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