Monday, October 6, 2008
Chris: "So, what's your name?"
Nico: "Nico Muhly."
Chris: "What kind of music do you write?"
I met Nico Muhly as he crawled into the back seat of my car. It was a Saturday night and I had gone to Jones to Hall to pick up my friend, pianist Chris Guzzman, from a concert. He was in town from New York for a solo-appearance with an orchestra in South Texas and wanted to see the Houston Symphony.
Chris didn't tell me that there where also three other colleagues of his in town. Violinist Caroline Pliszka was in town serving as the substitute concert master of the Houston Ballet Orchestra. There was an oboist, whose name I can't remember, here to audition for a position with the Houston Symphony.
Nico said he was in the midst of many composing projects, including one for the American Ballet Theatre, when he heard that a group of old friends from Julliard where all going to be Houston and decided it was time to take a break and clear his mind.
I remarked on his bright silver boots and we decided that one could easily be shot in some neighborhoods for wearing them.
We took a tour of the Montrose nightlife and agreed to meet for Brunch the next morning. Nico wanted to sample some down home southern cooking and we promptly ended up in midtown eating soul food. (I think he even ordered Chitterlings!)
We all said goodbye, Nico promised to send me a copy of his then newly released first CD and, I then ran home to google this delightful character who I had just met and see what kind of information I could find. He said he had a website with a blog. What he didn't tell me was that his name would also appeared under listings in the New Yorker, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the websites of Carnegie Hall and NPR.
I was kind of impressed with the articles. It was clear to me that this sassy and eccentric person that I had just met was on the verge of a major career in classical music. What was more impressive was his music. I got his CD in the mail a couple of days later and was immediately struck by what I experienced. I had never heard anything like it. His vocabulary included everything I loved, from simple and almost naïve music for solo piano, to overdone vibrato on a violin, to electronics that reminded me of my many nights listening to electronica in the late 90's.
I immediately included his music on The Afternoon Concert (Weekdays, 1-3PM on 88.7FM). One of the things that this radio guy lives for is the opportunity to expose people to good classical music that they have never heard before. Initially this new music that I was so proud of went unnoticed. Then, pianist Rod Waters included one of Nico's works (Quiet Music) on a concert program he was creating and came and played it on The Front Row. That performance will soon be included on the The Front Row Reserved Vol.3.
Finally, you can enjoy some of Nico Muhly's music on tonight's Music at the Menil program being presented by the Houston Public Radio Chamber Ensemble. Timothy Hester will perform the Three Etudes for Solo Piano which includes the same piece that Rod performed earlier this year. Curiously, another work on the program is by a friend and former classmate of Nico's. String Quartet No.2 by Jefferson Friedman is a much more substantial work and is quite possibly the hardest thing that this violinist has ever had to perform in public. While the music of Jefferson Friedman and Nico Muhly couldn't be more different in vocabulary, it is obvious that they value expression and audience appeal in a way that is refreshing for classical music. Rest assured, these are two of the smartest and intelligent composers working and their music is anything but "dumbed-down." In fact, their music is influenced and informed by such an eclectic mix of sources that most listeners will not hear it all. What is impossible to escape is that their music is some of the very best being written today and, while their influences are many, you won't miss anything if you've never heard of Bjork, Fischerspooner or, for that matter, John Corigliano or John Adams.