Nico Muhly’s first work for English National Opera was an iffy affair, but he talks a blue streak, and since his collaborators include Bjork, Philip Glass, and sundry indie-rock outfits, nobody could accuse him of not putting himself about. He’s now the go-to classical composer for anyone wanting to associate themselves with cutting-edge New York cool.
For ‘Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett, Britten Sinfonia and Guests’ the Barbican had given him carte blanche, and with three premieres plus an improvised folk-music set he’d taken advantage of that freedom. The full hall had an unusually large quota of Young British Artist-type beauty and fashion: was this the new audience for classical music the promoters hoped to attract? When Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Violent, violent sea’ embarked on its lazy course, with delicate textures and gentle string glissandi, the message was cosily unthreatening: the piece didn’t do much, but it was a pleasant place to be.
Owen Pallett’s ‘Violin Concerto’, which followed, inhabited a strikingly similar place, with textures to which the Britten Sinfonia, under Andre de Ridder’s crisp direction, brought a lovely translucence. Pekka Kuusisto was the soloist, but what he was given to do did not allow much scope for his charismatic showmanship. We were told that Pallett wanted to ‘resolve the influence’ of Bach, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Gyorgy Ligeti, and that he had chosen microtonal tunings plus a ‘psychoacoustic phenomenon’ consisting of a scale which seems to go up and down but actually stays in one place. But the whole thing felt like a mere busy exercise. Next up was Muhly’s new cello concerto, once again emanating from the same sound-world, once again hyperactive, but without any trace of drama in the soloist-orchestra relationship (this being no fault of the excellent cellist Oliver Coates). Muhly’s way of taking his bow was a hyperactive performance in itself, all waving arms and legs, and conducting his applause like a maestro.
Then the lighting turned smoky blue and it was folk-music time with different bunch of players, while Muhly gabbled nineteen to the dozen and clambered among his assorted instruments like a deranged chef. The songs were nice, the playing indifferent, the singing sub-Rufus Wainwright, but the YBAs whooped and shrieked their delight. As a vanity project, the event was a success, but it made a rotten advert for classical music.