Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett – Barbican Centre, London March 16th

… it might have seemed ramshackle, but had assuredness at its core, something which Muhly references as disorganised and casual but instead seemed more like fluid poetry.” – Siobhán Kane attended Nico Muhly & Owen Pallett’s recent performance at the Barbican Centre in London.
Not unlike Union Chapel, London’s Barbican Centre has a history of programming interesting musical projects. As part of this year’s Contemporary Music strand, there has already been “The Floating Palace”, curated by Robyn Hitchcock and featuring Martin and Eliza Carthy and Howe Gelb, and “The Long Count” – The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s multimedia concert featuring Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Kelly Deal (The Breeders); and in their Infinite Music strand, which this concert is part of, there will be collaborations between The Mountain Goats with vocal quartet Anonymous 4 (2nd April), and Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly (9th April), with many more interesting nights to follow.

The Barbican is such a giant of a place, it is easy to get lost, but eventually we find the Hall, which is the setting for tonight’s show, under the strand that describes itself as involving musicians who have “revitalised the contemporary music landscape, eroding the boundaries between rock, classical, electronica and folk – making richly-textured music for adventurous listeners.” And adventurous is surely a word that is by now synonymous with Nico Muhly, who was last seen on Irish shores in late November of last year, with his work with Crash Ensemble, at Liberty Hall, which was exciting and brilliant – as much a product of his enthusiasm for collaboration as it was his talent, and tonight, this also seems to be the case.

Muhly has brought together a wide selection of musicians, from the Britten Sinfonia conducted by André de Ridder, to cellist Oliver Coates, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, violist Nadia Sirota, and musicians and singers Sam Amidon and Thomas Bartlett, and fellow composer and musician Owen Pallett.

The first half contained compositions by Missy Mazzoli, Muhly and Pallett, with Mazzoli’s Violent, Violet Sea starting things off. It was all oceanic, glacial swirling beauty, taking perhaps a spiritual cue from Debussy, with lovely pastoral aspects including strings that at times sounded like buzzing bees. Then Owen Pallett’s premiere of his Violin Concerto switched things up quite radically, with its glitchy scratchiness, subverting tradition with what at times could have passed for a kind of dance music, with its speckles of percussion, and folk-infused sound (sometimes bringing to mind Bartók ) and discordant strings, with charismatic violinist Pekka Kuusisto ably interpreting Pallett’s vision, which was disorienting and challenging.

Nico Muhly’s Cello Concerto, played by an understated Oliver Coates again took traditional conceits, and tipped them over to an off-kilter place, replete with nice harmonic shifts, and a lovely featuring of the harp and brass which lent the composition a certain warmth. Various composers came to mind throughout, including John Adams and Stravinsky, but Muhly has imbued it, (like Mazzoli and Pallett) with an eye towards popular music, as well.

This seems to be what the night is about, even though it is split into two halves; there is something of a reconciling taking place before our eyes – the first half was about setting a landscape where classical and popular music can not only coexist, but combine to create something else entirely, and the second half seems to be about celebrating the idea of that combining, while bringing it to an earthy place, pulling back the veil, to show the machinations of the process, and the other influences that might not have been so apparent in the first half.

So we get what is billed as “An 802 Moment” referencing the tour that Muhly had been on previously with many of these musicians, and it is a wonderful rotating cast of people, including Sam Amidon, who performed songs like “I See the Sign” with great care. As different musicians entered and exited the stage, what became quickly evident was the looseness that these musicians engage in, with Bartlett and Muhly hopping from one piano to another keyboard, sometimes tapping drums, taking sips of red wine as they went – it might have seemed ramshackle, but had assuredness at its core, something which Muhly references as “disorganised” and “casual” but instead seemed more like fluid poetry.

It is clear that Muhly is the beating heart of the whole project, quipping wittily to the audience where possible, before going on to perform a luscious piano piece – “Skip Town“, which he made look effortless, then accompanying Nadia Sirota on her eerie viola piece. Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) flitted in and out of proceedings, sometimes playing piano, and sometimes singing in a lovely low whisper, on songs like “Tigers“, and accompanying banjo-and-guitar-playing Amidon on certain harmonies. A very haunting take on Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is a highlight, not least because it encourages Pallett to the stage – and his own contribution is full of heart and elegance (partly bound up in his dapper suit) and his vocal complemented Bartlett’s well. It is not only Pallett’s ferocious talent on violin that adds to proceedings, (lifting things somewhat) but his particularly beautiful vocal, and at one point almost all of the string soloists were stood together, with Muhly remarking “this is the best string section in the world”.

The remarkable musicianship on display, mixed with the filtering of the American folk tradition brought about a special performance of the Muhly composed “The Only Tune Pt. 1. The Two Sisters“, which he describes as “a big messy cauldron of a piece into which many things are thrown”, and which is something of a majestic centrepiece, perhaps encompassing these musicians’ entire thesis- bringing the ancient out into the modern light, which is as unsettling as it is somehow dappled in brilliance. When Amidon, bathed in pink light, shouts “thanks to Nico for bringing us all here!”, before everyone hurtled into the waltzing, swaying “Saro”, it felt like they had laid down the gauntlet, somehow, and an infinite set of possibilities for the future. 

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