LEBRECHT LISTENS | Nico Muhly’s ‘Stranger’ Creates A Fusion Entirely His Own

By Norman Lebrecht on July 8, 2022

Nico Muhly (Photo: Heidi Solander)
Nico Muhly (Photo: Heidi Solander)

Nico Muhly: Stranger (AVIE)


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COVID has been cruel to rising composers. Two years out, with theatres shut and managements unwilling to commit to new work, is equivalent to having to start all over again. Many, lacking the fight, have fallen by the wayside.

Nico Muhly, now 40, had his first opera, Two Boys, staged at English National Opera and the Met a decade ago. It was the first opera to engage with social media, taking place both on stage and on phone screens. Its successor Marnie, based on the Alfred Hitchcock film, was a something of a narrative regression, but the Met streamed it for free through COVID to keep the work alive, and Muhly has continued to produce. His métier embraces post-Britten Anglican hymnody and post-Philip Glass movie-like minimalism. Fusion it may be, but it is entirely his own.

From Stranger, third movement, with tenor Nicholas Phan:

This new album of three works for tenor and small ensemble is where Muhly feels most at home — telling stories in clearly articulated English with a strong rhythmic propulsion and a distinct social agenda. The title track harnesses formative cultures of American immigration. Lorne Ys My Likinge reimagines a 19th century Chester Mystery Play. Impossible Things is a cycle of Cavafy poems.

All three works inhabit a stylistic limbo, waiting for the next big thing to happen. Muhly offers quiet empathy more than overwhelming emotion, which may be just right for this interim moment. The Chinese-American tenor Nicholas Phan claims to find more self-identity in this music than in any other. Brooklyn Rider are the backing group. I’m left eager to know what Nico Muhly will do next.

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