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Nico Muhly Seeing Is Believing

from Monday, June6th of the year2011.

Minimalism, electronic fusion, and early English choral music don’t generally sit together comfortably within the same sentence, still less on the same classical disc. That fact alone makes Seeing Is Believing worth a listen, aside from these superb performances.

Twenty-nine-year-old American composer Nico Muhly has an extraordinary CV for his age. Achievements include works being premiered by the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, a collaboration with Björk, and composing the film score for The Reader. If all this weren’t enough, shortly after this review is posted English National Opera will perform the British première of his first opera, Two Boys, with its thoroughly modern storyline about the darker side of the internet. In other words, think Muhly, think youthful no-rules classical, full of cross-genre inventiveness, and indeed that’s exactly what you get with Seeing Is Believing.

Seeing Is Believing references the ancient practise of observing and mapping the sky. His third album for Decca Classics, it punctuates four of Muhly’s original compositions with three of his orchestral arrangements, of motets by Byrd and Gibbons. Miserere Mei is particularly fascinating for the fact in which initially it appears to be a literal orchestration job, thanks to the way he has carefully conserved the original vocal part-writing. However, upon the opening of the “Zion is wasted” section, everything changes. Carefully placed little modern twists appear in the shape of registral extremes in the piano and gamelan gongs, which surprise, delight, and thoroughly update the originals whilst maintaining all their sense of antiquity and sacred dignity. It’s genius. They’re mesmerising complements to his original compositions, which are edgy, sometimes delicate, vital works, heavy with the influence of the great American minimalists but also drawing from modern electronic idioms. The title-track, a concerto for electric violin, is a case in point, played with brilliance by Thomas Gould. Equally brilliant are the Aurora Orchestra’s performances. In the motet arrangements, their playing style is a delicious amalgam of early and contemporary playing styles, whilst the original works are presented with energy, dynamism and a sheer joy in the music.

If Muhly is a new name to you, then this beautifully performed disc is the one to get hold of. His music is clever, young, complex and multi-faceted. It’s also capable of beguiling listeners of all ages, classical ‘experts’ and newcomers alike. You can’t ask for more than that.

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