Muhly and friends do the cabaret thing, fabulously, at LPR

Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 2:47 pm
Nico Muhly collaborated with several singer friends Thursday night at Le poisson rouge

Nico Muhly collaborated with several singer friends Thursday night at Le poisson rouge

Nico Muhly has been a fixture in New York City for years but the 32 year-old composer seems to be everywhere this fall. He has recently collaborated with the New York City Ballet and written incidental music for the current Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie.

As the Metropolitan Opera prepares for the U.S. premiere of Muhly’s Two Boys Monday night,, the composervcurated and hosted an evening at Le poisson rouge Thursday evening, in conjunction with the Met.

The evening was largely in celebration of Benjamin Britten’s centennial year, but also proved a canny piece of marketing for Two Boys.  Featuring singers in the current Met production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the program of Britten, Purcell, Handel, and Muhly, highlighted the idea of inspiration and collaboration across eras and geographic borders.

Muhly’s spiky-haired enthusiasm and energy are seemingly endless and, while giving the audience tidbits of information between the works, also contagious.  Muhly’s admiration and love of Britten was not only plainly apparent on his face as he talked about him, but also in his music, as if the two composers were co-curating the event.

Selections from Britten’s Cabaret Songs proved the perfect opener and LPR was just the right space for it.  Soprano Patricia Racette took the stage and commanded it, acting brilliantly over the top, and singing about love to all the concertgoers over their drinks.  Her performance was fabulous, alternating easily between a chesty low-range sprechstimme, and full-blown Met stage Puccini volume.  She had the audience in her palm.

Kathleen Kim followed, singing two of her arias from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The role of Tytania could not be more perfect for Kim’s voice, and she shone as brilliantly at LPR as she does on the Met stage, as did countertenor Iestyn Davies who sang Oberon’s aria “I know a bank.”

Pianist Dan Saunders, an assistant conductor at the Met, performed the reductions with such grace and ease one almost didn’t miss Britten’s colorful orchestrations.

As Muhly impishly told the audience, Britten was highly influenced by Henry Purcell.  Joseph Kaiser, another Midsummer colleague, sang “Sweeter than roses” and Kathleen Kim again took the stage for “Hark, the Ech’ing Air”, both Purcell songs as realized by Britten. The ease from which they transitioned from Britten to Purcell was perhaps the truest testament to the similarities and influence between the two English composers.

But the real gem of the evening was Nico Muhly and Iestyn Davies performing Muhly’s own Four Traditional Songs.

There is always something intangible about the work of truly great composers. Listening to Muhly’s music, and as the audience became completely silent and still, one got the sense that we were in the midst of someone remarkable, and not unlike Britten in his mastery.  The songs were simple – the vocal line repeated the folk melodies, while the piano part subtly ebbed and changed, a technique that can be found in many of Britten’s folk song arrangements. But the effect from Davies and the composer was mesmerizing, and Muhly’s kinetic electricity poured out of him, even in the quietness.

LPR is the perfect setting for someone like Muhly – edgy and hip, but always reverential to the music.  Muhly is the kind of musician that will gush over Britten’s realizations of Purcell so much that you forget he’s collaborated with pop musicians like Sufjan Stevens and Glen Hansard.  Drinks in hand (quite literally as the case with Iestyn Davies during his aria), the evening could not have offered more perfect advance publicity for Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met, beginning next Monday.

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