Nico Muhly took a break from the final preparations for his opera Two Boys—premiering at the Met tomorrow—to host a serene, laid-back evening at Le Poisson Rouge dedicated to Benjamin Britten, his forebears, and his legacy. Muhly’s last appearance at the venue back in May was an exciting, fast-paced preview of Two Boys, and Thursday’s more reflective performance proved that he’s just as accomplished a curator as he is a composer. Featuring choral works by Britten, Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, and Muhly himself, the program traced a musical heritage from Purcell down to Muhly, or, as countertenor Iestyn Davies put it less linearly, a “collaboration across centuries.”
Muhly’s compositions are wide and varied—operas, ballets, orchestral arrangements, chamber music, film scores, Björk collaborations, and much more—and it seems that one of his goals for the evening was to show how heterogeneous and referential Britten’s work was as well. Progressing from brash, torchy cabaret songs set to W. H. Auden poems to selections from the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream to ecstatic realizations of Purcell arias, the Britten portion of the program demonstrated the composer’s extensive emotional depth and openness to multiple sources of inspiration.
Britten maintained that eclecticism while being what Muhly called a “practical” composer, one who mostly drew from sources that were close to him, whether Purcell, Shakespeare, or cabaret. Muhly shares a similar “practical” openness, constantly expanding his compositional scope while remaining true to his musical influences. At the end of the evening, Muhly demonstrated his indebtedness to the English choral tradition with “Four Traditional Songs,” anonymous folk songs that he arranged against a sharp, modernized piano accompaniment.
The incredible vocalists—Iestyn Davies, tenor Joseph Kaiser, and sopranos Patricia Racette and Kathleen Kim—poured their hearts out to Dan Saunders’ virtuosic piano, and Muhly didn’t mince words about his admiration for all of them. (“Are we all obsessed with Kathleen Kim now?” he asked the audience after Kim’s particularly ethereal performance of a Midsummer aria.) Muhly’s vivacious, cheeky stage presence, which he maintained from his program notes to his own piano playing, is always a treat to witness and acts as a refreshing antidote to the general stuffiness of opera commentary (it also carries over to his consistently hilarious Twitter feed).
His prolificness and seemingly constant energy make it no wonder that Muhly could pull off such a focused presentation of a musical giant while gearing up to be the youngest composer (at 32) to ever debut at the Met. The historical weight of that statistic would be stressful for anyone, but Muhly doesn’t seem to be crippling under the pressure in the slightest. Besides, he’s in good company: Britten’s first major opera, Peter Grimes, premiered in London when the composer was also just 32.