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Nico Muhly: Union Chapel, London

by Pascal Wyse, The Guardian.

“Had to go home to repair my pretentiousometer, which is shattered,” my friend texted, excusing himself from an after-show drink. Nico Muhly and friends, meanwhile, were receiving a standing ovation. Muhly’s music doesn’t court ambiguity. If it’s going to be pretty, you’ll get cotton-wool harmonies and fairytale celestes. When drama is called for, you’ll be smacked in the face with the sound of an anvil and dragged to a cliff edge.

Played by Muhly on piano, Doveman (Thomas Bartlett) on keyboards, US folk singer-songwriter Sam Amidon on guitar and banjo, Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurösson on electronics and percussion, violinist Thomas Gould and Icelandic singer/trombonist Helgi Jónsson, these compositions echoed Muhly’s experiences of scoring for film (most recently with The Reader) and theatre. They hit their dramatic peaks so suddenly, it can feel like trying to empathise with the final act of a play when you have missed the beginning.

Amidon’s singing – almost numb by comparison – brought a welcome sense of clouded sentiments in his folk songs, such as All Is Well. Muhly’s and Bartlett’s arrangements illuminated the tales beautifully at first, without cluttering this sparse Appalachian territory, but in the end they couldn’t help pulling focus, emoting earnestly and clambering over each other stagily as they shared a keyboard. Then the strangest moment of the evening: Amidon put his guitar down and performed a 10-second mime of what looked like a zombie falling out of a cupboard, then sat down again.

In the final epic number, Muhly found his special alchemy, fusing the best aspects of classical and pop rather than boiling them down. The Only Tune is the ballad of a sister who has drowned, and whose bones are fashioned into a violin that will play only one song, with a haunting refrain: “Oh the dreadful wind and the rain.” The music carried the story, and told it rather than smothering it. This time when we reached the cliff edge, there was a real danger of falling.

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