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Roundhouse Reverb Festival

by Michael White,

Critics spend their lives throwing around adjectives after concerts, usually in the nature of good, bad or indifferent; and in my case, thrilling is a word that doesn’t surface too often in the vocab. But it did on Sunday at the Roundhouse. Three decades on from its glory days as a centre for cutting-edge contemporary music courtesy of Boulez, Stockhausen and other giants of the 60s avant-garde who played there, Camden Town’s iconic fringe venue for all things new and alternative is hosting the kind of contemporary music festival it might have been built for (instead of trains).

Like most contemporary music festivals, the repertoire of Reverb (as it’s called) is hit and miss. I was there on Saturday and thought too much of the programme fell into the category of interesting failure. But Sunday night was different. Sunday was Nico Muhly. And if you don’t know who he is, neither did I, really, beyond a vague understanding that he was the current boy-wonder of American new music and someone to investigate. I’d heard and liked his score for the film The Reader. I knew he’d written something for the choir of Clare College, Cambridge. And I knew there was a buzz about him that some of my colleagues in the British music establishment dismissed as hype. That was it.

So when, last night, he bounced onto the Roundhouse stage cross-dressed in what might have been a Nicole Fahri frock ““ exuberantly camp and introducing himself, the Britten Sinfonia, and his work through a microphone like the compere of a Christopher Street drag show ““ I was slightly taken aback. Things don’t
happen that way at the Wigmore Hall.

I wasn’t keen about the way it started either, with Muhly playing a piece of keyboard froth by Philip Glass (worryingly described, through the mike, as “˜my mentor’) followed by an orchestral score by Muhly himself that ran like sub-Stravinskyan reflections on the methodology of Steve Reich: edgy, streetwise, second-hand Americana, and not put together too convincingly.

But then the programme took a different turn. And with Muhly conducting the Sinfonia alongside a compellingly passive American folk guitarist/singer called Sam Amidon, there came a succession of what I guess you’d call song settings ““ although that wouldn’t give much sense of how extravagant they were as statements or how far the settings travelled from the texts they framed.

They were perhaps a 21st century American equivalent of orchestral songs by Mahler, embedded in symphonic texture. And like so many of Mahler’s texts, they were darkly portentous folk songs ““ the kind of thing you’d hear in a log-cabin in Vermont ““ transformed into the most bizarre, extraordinary and memorable flights of fantasy.

Somewhere in the antecedents of this music lay the American pastoral of, say, Aaron Copland’s song-settings. But so did the urban chic of Steve Reich. And so do plenty of other things that lie beyond the realms of “˜classical’ tradition. There’s a wild (deranged) eclecticism in the writing that resists nomenclature and staggers back and forth across the formal boundaries of art music, commercial music, rock, folk or whatever. The one certain thing is that these songs are powerful, visceral, and brilliantly imagined in the way the music wraps itself around the solo voice, partly-supportive, part-subversive. I’d dare to say there’s no greater invention even in the Britten folk-song settings. And the truth is that, compared to Nico Muhly, Britten’s folk songs sound

Maybe I lead a sheltered life, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like this music; and I was mesmerised by it, by the singer (whose blank-faced delivery was unaccountably poignant, like a country boy who’s stumbled on some deep truth), and by the energy of Muhly’s direction ““ which then applied itself to a raw but heart-stopping account of Steve Reich’s City Life that ended the show and sent me out into the street on a
crazy high.

Muhly and Amidon are back in Britain in the spring, to give a concert at the Barbican. And my hot tip for the year so far is that if there’s one concert you put in your diary it’s this. April 20th, 7.30pm. It won’t be Wigmore Hall-nice. But it will be something you should hear.

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