Music review: Nico Muhly’s “How Little You Are”

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(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

 

Leading up to this weekend’s concert, a great question seemed to loom over the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s major new work, “How Little You Are”:  How do you write for 12 classical guitars?

Well this, it turns out, is how you do it. NICO_RETOUCHED-1

Muhly’s piece opened Saturday night at the Bass Concert Hall with a delicate sprinkle of guitar, a lyrical introit to make way for our entry into the world of these women pioneer diarists, whose words form the basis of the work. The piece, lasting about forty minutes, was divided in six parts, each taking a different diary entry for Austin’s Grammy-winning Conspirare to paint a vivid picture of these women’s beautiful, difficult lives.

The beauty came first: The sun was just gliding the hilltops when we arose. Everything, even the barrenness, was beautiful.” After all the talk of hardscrabble and death being the premise of the concert, this was the start of the work, the words given a soaring soprano melody. Next, with talk of quaking aspens, trembling, the guitars embodied it with a jittery strum.

The interplay between the guitars and voices, conducted seamlessly by Conspirare’s Craig Hella Johnson, was enchanting. Both the chorus and guitar quartets had an arresting piece of music of their own and I occasionally caught myself intensely focused on the dense, sparkling guitar arrangement, tracking its nebulous parts as they moved from one quartet’s self-contained galaxy to the next.

Speaking of these quartets. The Dublin Guitar Quartet, Texas Guitar Quartet and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet made up the 12 guitars, each one intensely focused but always with an evocative musicality. It is entirely possible this particular grouping may well be the most talented that will ever assemble to play this piece.

But something else extraordinary happened on the occasion of this premiere: It rained in Bass Hall.

Not literally, of course. But as if by design, in the midst of a piece about living with the awesome power of an untouched wilderness, exposed to the elements, we heard the deep bass of thunder. Then a few more bass notes, until finally the sky opened and, if you had closed your eyes, the hall could have been a humble stone ranch home with a thin tin roof.

As the rain clattered on with its white noise backdrop, it did compete a little with the delicate, quiet work. Yet it wasn’t it also perfect? The first showers arrived as singers were slowly unspooling the heartbreaking story about a pioneer’s dying child.

In his introduction, conductor Johnson declared Muhly “One of the most important composers of our time.” No pressure. Although it sounds hyperbolic, or at least premature to say this of a 33-year-old, you could see flashes of it, true enough. Muhly made moving, evocative vocal lines from texts that are simple but powerful. He seemed to pull out music from the words almost as if the words were musical to begin with; nothing felt forced. Harmonies were generous but always came with veins of dissonance.

Maybe this success was the smallest surprise. Already known as a gifted writer of choral music, Muhly’s decisions seemed miles ahead of some of the less-artfully abrasive choral writers in this sphere. Making the text musical is his central concern, and he is very very good at this.

In only a couple of places did the collaboration of guitars and chorus wander off the trail. The guitars, especially in the first text, seemed always to be moving forward, propelling us on a journey. There would be pauses along the way, some purposeful and effective, but in a later text, a guitar section felt stagnant. And at a few junctures the score asks one ensemble to simply move out of the other’s way, not perhaps the smoothest way to go about it.

The evening’s opening half was a charming concert from the Conspirare Youth Choir and Austin Classical Guitar Youth Orchestra. It too had some original work by living composers: Graham Reynolds’ piece “Powerman,” a new adaptation of ACG’s original 2010 commission, and some interesting traditional and pop arrangements by Austinite Matthew Lyons.

Saturday’s one-off concert was very well attended, better so than several national touring acts who’ve come through Bass. And despite the rewards of the concert’s second half, it must have occurred to some in the audience that a tantalizing amount of musical talent was present in the hall, yet for half the concert, went unused. Scheduling some more music from quartets who’ve already traveled from Dublin and California, or  even Muhly, who performs his own piano works, seems like an obvious choice, in retrospect.

It would be nice if “How Little You Are” feels a little reverberation in the classical world. The parties involved: Texas Performing Arts, Austin Classical Guitar and Conspirare were justly enthusiastic about the project. It’s a strong, moving work, a richly detailed piece of art that takes worthy stories from the West and makes them into something more than the sum of their parts, piecing just tiny fragments of these women’s lives together in a buzzing, humming vibrating piece of music that manages to move you not just intellectually, but emotionally.


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