There are composers, and there are compositeurs, and there are Komponists, but few of them working today have anything like the buzz that surrounds young Nico Muhly.
At just age 32, Muhly (whose Twitter page uses the Icelandic word for composer, tónlist), has the kind of monstrously busy, high-profile, engaged career that would be the envy of any artist, not just contemporary classical composers.
In October, his opera Two Boys had its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, making him the youngest composer ever commissioned for that august house. The work, created in co-production with the English National Opera, with whom it had its world premiere in 2012, is the story of the stabbing of one boy by another who has been driven to the deed by Internet chat rooms.
A Vermont native who studied English literature at Columbia and music at the Juilliard School, where his teachers included John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse, he has already amassed a large body of work in several different genres.
His output includes the score for the films The Reader (a Best Picture nominee starring Kate Winslet), Joshua and Margaret; pieces for pianist Simone Dinnerstein and violinist Hilary Hahn; scores for the New York City Ballet and choreographer Benjamin Millepied; and orchestral works for the New York Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony and the Boston Pops, among others (a full list can be found on his website at www.nicomuhly.com).
He is, in short, a creative force to be reckoned with, which is why Michael Finn, the former Palm Beach Symphony executive director and onetime associate dean of the Juilliard School, commissioned him last year to write a celebratory fanfare for the 40th anniversary of the symphony’s founding.
That work has its world premiere Monday night at the Bethesda-by-the-Sea in a concert by the brass and percussion sections of the Palm Beach Symphony. Finn said he asked Muhly to reference a theme from Debussy’s La Mer as part of his fanfare, and Muhly said in an email interview last week that he did so.
“I started with it, wrote it out, made it a kind of obsession. You can hear fragments of it towards the end of the piece,” Muhly wrote. “I never quite know how to react when people ask me to include things, because: define ‘include.’”
Muhly wrote that he found the commission daunting in some respects because of a fanfare’s short, celebratory nature. Finn asked him to write for precisely the same forces as Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
“It’s actually a hard ask, a fanfare: all the normal compositional techniques of development and such go out the window. It’s like a mock job interview,” he wrote.
Muhly said his “gold standard” for such a piece is John Adams’ popular orchestral potboiler, Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
“Because I couldn’t have strings here, I just went for woodblock!” he wrote, adding that the 4-minute work is “noisy, festive and short … It gets a little faster toward the end.”
Asked about the place of regional groups such as the Palm Beach Symphony in the fabric of American musical life, Muhly was enthusiastic.
“I think it’s a great thing. It’s community engagement, it’s not reliant on huge boards of directors and the obfuscatory nonsense that got Minnesota in such trouble. That is a perfect example of people Just Not Acting Right,” he wrote, referring to the 15-month lockout of The Minnesota Orchestra, which ended two weeks ago.
“In smaller orchestras, it seems like there is a bigger investment in everybody working together,” he wrote. “However, I should add that I know very little about the business models at work here.”
Muhly’s work with pop singers such as Björk and Usher is indicative of the kind of all-music-is-welcome approach that is common today but that not so long ago would have landed a classical composer some time in a holding cell with the Genre Police, under suspicion of trafficking in inferior art.
“That always struck me as wildly disingenuous. There is plenty of godawful classical music too; being bad at stuff knows no boundaries,” he wrote. “I feel like I’m just acting my age about pop/classical — I don’t know anybody in their early 30s — and certainly not in their 20s — who still thinks like that.
“That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means that they, in some weird way, suck,” he wrote.
The rise of Internet technology has made it simplicity itself for anyone to listen to literally any kind of music he or she wants, a change Muhly applauds in vivid language.
“I can’t imagine a way in which it’s been baleful at all. I think the death of the record stores is a great and necessary thing. I don’t miss in the least that gross porn room in which classical music was kept, to say nothing of the inner sanctum: the opera room, with paunchy old perverts frotting the Callas recordings and frightening the passers-by with their dandruff,” he wrote.
“The fact that young musicians can get access to all sorts of music is wonderful to see. I remember having such an ordeal trying to get a recording of something by David Lang in 1996; now it’s a click away. This cannot be a bad thing.”
Muhly has another premiere this coming week, at New York’s The Kitchen, when the much-celebrated new-music ensemble Eighth Blackbird will give the New York debut of his 2011 chamber work, Doublespeak (http://vimeo.com/85551052). Asked to offer a good selection of his music for Palm Beach concertgoers unfamiliar with his work, he wrote:
“I’d tell them to check out the disc ‘Speaks Volumes,’ and then perhaps the disc ‘A Good Understanding,’” he wrote. “I think there is little enough of it that it’s not too scary. ‘Seeing Is Believing’ is pretty solid, too.”
Palm Beach Symphony: Tubes and Pipes, featuring the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra, is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. In addition to Muhly, music by Copland, Gabrieli, Strauss has been scheduled. For tickets, call 561-655-2657 or visit www.palmbeachsymphony.com.