by Robert Leeper
Last Tuesday night, fresh from curating and performing in his own festival, A Scream and An Outrage, Brooklyn-based composer Nico Muhly returned to New York for two shows at (le) Poisson Rouge. The evening consisted of a broad range of works based loosely around a preview of his upcoming opera, Two Boys, premiering at the Metropolitan Opera in October.
With a libretto by celebrated American playwright Craig Lucas, Two Boys examines issues associated with the darker corners of the Internet and online chat rooms. The production is an important part of Met General Manager Peter Gelb’s larger effort to bring opera to a younger demographic, and the nature of the issues explored firmly drags opera into the 21st century.
For the performance, Muhly chose to highlight two selections from the opera in the intimate space. “I’m Scared for My Life,” sung by gifted Met soprano Jennifer Zetlan, comes early on in the opera, and raises questions about the protagonist’s little brother, “a computer genius,” and his activities on the Internet. Equally talented tenor Paul Appleby brought his talents to the excerpt “I’m Only Sixteen,” sung by a young suspect in the case who, after a day of interrogation, breaks down about his time online.
Nadia Sirota, a longtime friend, collaborator, and Juilliard classmate of Muhly’s, joined him for two Muhly violin etudes and “Am I In Your Light,” a selection from John Adams’ 2005 opera, Dr. Atomic. The two etudes were hauntingly beautiful, and had distinct traces of popular progressions one might hear from Grizzly Bear and other art-pop groups for which he writes music.
Muhly brought back some of his own classics later in the show, presenting a staggeringly beautiful rendition of A Hudson Cycle, a minimalist masterpiece off of his 2006 album, Speaks Volumes. The relentless pulse, limited pitch-class sets, and constantly shifting polyrhythms owe an immediate debt to the composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but Muhly puts his own immutable stamp on the style, with uneven rhythms distinctly different from those of his predecessors.
Muhly closed out the night with two incredible pieces of music referencing the past while simultaneously looking to the future. A solo piano piece, Lets Skip Town, had strong echoes of John Cage’s prepared piano works, and his percussive use of the piano blended with his use of electronics to create a true highlight of the evening.
Muhly’s choice of Philip Glass’s 12th Piano Etude as an encore was a fitting end to a program that underscored his mentor’s influence. As the piece seemed to ebb, flow, rise, and fall seamlessly, it gave the audience time to look forward to October's Two Boys premiere and reflect on what ambitious project this young composer might take on next.