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Wonderboy Nico Muhly doesn’t disappoint

by Rod Smith, The Star-Tribune.

Composer Nico Muhly dealt with high audience expectations at his Wednesday night performance at the Southern Theatre in the most direct way possible: by meeting them and then some. But contemporary classical music’s Boy Wonder relies nearly as much on personality as on musical attainments — and a good deal of his charm stems from a practiced knack for trashing classical conventions. Muhly stands on ceremony as much as, say, Katt Williams or Eddie Izzard.

“Totally feel free to clap as much as you want,” the 27-year-old said after bounding onstage with fellow prodigy and favorite playing partner violist Nadia Sirota and plopping onto his piano bench. Dressed in T-shirt, jeans and pirate boots — all black –topped with what appeared to be either a bathrobe or dress (also black), he cracked jokes, liberally salting his patter with epithets and even couching a potent plug for gay marriage in comedic garb.

Muhly’s sense of humor shines through in his music, too. Though he interpreted the likes of “Quiet Music” and “A Hudson Cycle” (both from his first album: Speaks Volumes) with all the nuance and gravity they merit, his default mode is decidedly lighthearted.

His compositions — especially two new ones played without announcing titles — reflect the minimalist tendencies of professed influences John Adams and longtime friend and employer Philip Glass, but Muhly’s approach is looser, more idiosyncratic. Also moving to the beat of a different drummer — along with killer visuals and a four-person dance troupe led by his wife — was opener Son Lux, a classically trained singer-songwriter whose majestically understated, dead-serious songs set the headliner off perfectly.

The lion’s share of Muhly’s set found him shunning the spotlight, instead whipping back and forth between a Steinway grand and laptop-based workstation rig in accompanist mode and letting Sirota spectacularly display the combination of passion and technique that started endearing her to everybody from Muhly to Yo-Yo Ma even before her graduation from Juilliard a few years ago.

“You see how I make her play all the hard stuff,” Muhly said after finishing a new piece with timing so torturous, he regularly cued her by raising his eyebrows. For once, he wasn’t kidding, especially regarding the final piece (and Speaks Volumes high point) “Keep in Touch.” As Muhly juggled soulful piano figures, carefully placed clicks, and samples of what sounded like Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) singing gospel underwater, his soloist offered an extended display of her instrument’s expressive capabilities, often generating nearly enough heat to make the poor viola burst into flames.

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