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Matthew AUCOIN (b. 1990)
Orphic Moments
Exodos for Tony (2015 arr.2021) [9:25]
Peter Appleby (tenor) Matthew Aucoin (piano)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2016) [36:31]
Conor Hanick (piano) Boston Modern Opera Project/Gil Rose
The Orphic Moment (2014) [16:22]
Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor) Keir GoGwilt (violin)
Its Own Accord (2016) [18:56]
Keir GoGwilt (violin) Matthew Aucoin (piano)
Dual (2015) [7:32]
Coleman Itzkoff (cello) Doug Balliett (double bass)
This Earth (2015) [7:31]
Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor) Matthew Aucoin (piano)
Gallup (Na’Nizhoozhí) (2021) [14:59]
Anthony Roth Costanzo, (countertenor) Davóne Tines, (bass-baritone)
Emi Ferguson,( flutes) Jonny Allen (percussion) Conor Hanick (piano) Miranda Cuckson (violin) Coleman Itzkoff (cello) Matthew Aucoin (conductor)
rec. 2019-2021, various locations
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BMOP/SOUND 1084 SACD [111:21]

This two-disc set is an extensive musical portrait of the young American composer, Matthew Aucoin. On the evidence of this collection, he is adept across a broad range of genres yet the thing that seems to unite all of the pieces included is a commitment to vocal writing whether for actual voices or instruments. This is clearly evidenced by the solo writing in the most substantial piece performed on this set, his dazzling piano concerto. The piano is treated like a singer in an opera. I found it, like all the music included, hugely impressive.
The long first movement is something of a slow burn but well worth sticking with. At first, I thought there were just too many references to other composers for it to achieve its own distinctive character. The spirit of the two Liszt piano concertos hovers close, as does that of Bartók’s last one. Shostakovich is in the mix somewhere and not just in the menacing tramp of the drums at the work’s opening. Elsewhere Ligeti seemed to peek out of the piano writing (does Aucoin have a thing for Hungarian composers?). As the music went on, Aucoin began to weave a spell and an entrancing one it is too. There is an organic quality to the way in which these and other elements coalesce and acquire momentum. Aucoin’s writing is highly diverse; playful one minute, serious the next. It is also very sensuous. He is unafraid to make sounds that the ear can revel in. Roughly speaking, this music dramatises a struggle between the bare percussion music with which it opens and this more lyrical, playful music. The piano acts as a kind of involved mediator between these two elements. There is a strange and dislocating climax which seems at first to crush the life out of the piece but a deliquescent cadenza restores the vitality of the music. The climax returns with renewed force and this time brings the music to a shattering halt.

The slow movement is much more sober in tone. It is based around slowly pulsing piano chords that only break up into arpeggiated figures about halfway through. There is something filmic about the music but the very best sort of film score. Around the piano chords the orchestra weaves long melodic lines that grow in intensity. The heart of the movement, at around the 8 minute mark, is an initially hushed and haunting variation on the opening music, now distorted. Just as it appears to be heading for a hammered climax, the music breaks apart into scurrying neurotic figures high up on the piano keyboard. Out of the disintegration of this, the opening music returns in its original form and the effect is now one of plangent sadness. Whilst the music is very different, the mood has something of outer passages of the slow movement of Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto.

The finale opens with music of extreme delicacy, as if to confound expectations of a concerto finale. Having established this, Aucoin then has a lot of fun with a louder passage which plays around with what you would normally expect from a romantic concerto finale. The whole thing is done with wit and affection before vanishing with a delectable sleight of hand. I can imagine this concerto bringing the house down at, say, a packed Royal Albert Hall at the Proms. Concert promoters please note!

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project are their usual fantastic selves – these folks don’t seem to be able to put a foot wrong at the moment! Conor Hanick is superb soloist who plays as if he knows he has the good fortune to be giving the first performance of a great work.

The piece which gives the collection its name – The Orphic Moment – might be said to explore the erotics of grief. The erotic in music is one of the preoccupations of much of Aucoin’s music and he consistently finds new ways of drawing it out. The erotic dimension of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth dramatises an ambivalence in the piece which sets a text by the composer. Orpheus may lose his love but he gains the most powerful of inspirations for his song. Some of the most potent music has after all been a response to romantic loss. For Aucoin, music is clearly a sensuous experience with even the more dissonant music having a distinct sensual character. Aucoin seduces the ear, whether roughly or gently.

As the name suggests, The Orphic Moment expands the moment where Orpheus’ backward glance seals Eurydice’s fate for a second time, expanded into 16 minutes of music. It ends with the moment itself. It was a happy idea to cast Eurydice as a solo violin. Several of the vocal pieces included on this anthology are, like this one, for countertenor which adds an extra element of ambivalence as well allowing Aucoin to reference older musical and particularly vocal style. This is in effect a solo cantata with obbligato solo violin. His writing for the violin here and in the dazzling sonata for violin and piano, Its Own Accord, is so good I find it hard to believe no one has yet commissioned him to write a full concerto for the instrument. A violin equivalent of his piano concerto would be a real gift to the repertoire.

If I say that Its Own Accord seems preoccupied with textures that might make it sound a little abstract when it is a substantial and passionate outpouring of feeling. In its explorations of the ways in which the violin and the piano do and do not work together, presumably the accord of the title, it says something about the possibility and impossibility of human relations. The music is so ravishing on the ear, most impressively in the lengthy slow movement, it is hard not to feel that at least some of the human relations explored are erotic ones. It is cast in three movements with two short, playful outer ones framing the slow movement which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ‘Louange’ which ends Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps by Messiaen, another composer who revelled in the ambivalently erotic in music. Keir GoGwilt and the composer bring an excited verve to this remarkable piece that ought to become a standard item in concert programmes. Aucoin wrings every last drop of colour from his kaleidoscopic piano writing.

Nestling amongst these larger canvases, Dual for cello and double bass is a more minor work. The cello part at the premiere was played by no less than Yo-Yo Ma and it is great fun. Alongside a concern with the timbal possibilities of this unusual combination of instruments, it is driven by an infectious pulse and hints delicately at darker matters without going further.

As mentioned earlier, one of the distinctive features of Aucoin’s writing for instruments, seen most prominently in the piano part in the concerto, is the way it always tends toward the vocal. Ironically, at key moments such as the conclusion of the dramatic scena Exodos for Tony, which opens disc one, the voice tends toward the spoken word as if, in this case, the situation of the deathbed of someone dying of AIDS is too unbearable for singing. It is a moment of colossal poignancy.

If the erotic is a pronounced element of Aucoin’s musical makeup then it is most often crossed with loss and regret. Tony is dying of AIDS and Eurydice is about to be consigned to the underworld, this time for good. The final piece in this composer portrait, This Earth was written to accompany a film and mixes purely instrumental music with settings of poems by the American poet Jake Skeets. I haven’t seen the film but the two concluding sections which set Skeets’ words catch with immense delicacy and precision the elusive delights and terrors of a sexual encounter. This is music whose eroticism is of exquisite delicacy and fragility. The finely woven tapestry of bell like notes into which this encounter dissolves is spine tingling.

The beautifully turned dramatic scena for countertenor and piano (it is more operatic than an art song) This Earth sets a passage from the Purgatory section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The composer in his self effacing but suggestive notes introducing the collection, calls the passage he sets “inexplicably erotic”. It certainly is in this setting, but more than anything else what it brought before my ears and imagination was a moment of the utmost tenderness between Dante and Virgil. The most erotic music in this collection is also the music that connects most intimately with the listener. What separates the erotic from the merely sexual is intimacy and to some extent all great music, however large scale it is, is intimate. The vast symphonies by Mahler are personal. Whether this point holds generally, Aucoin’s music is always intimate. Even the most public score included here, the Piano Concerto, has the confiding nature of a Mozart concerto rather than of the virtuoso circus act. Aucoin’s piano writing again lights up This Earth. Leaving aside the emotional heft of this work, and it is the kind of music that brings a tear to the eye, the fact that Aucoin is able to draw new sounds from a piano even after all this time is remarkable.

In the last few weeks I have had the immense pleasure to get to know the music of two American composers born in the 1990s, the other being Gillian Rae Perry. Their music is typical of the immense energy coursing through contemporary classical music at the moment but above all both of them are writing intensely charismatic music. Aucoin’s music needs no explanation or special pleading on account of being contemporary. It just needs, indeed demands listeners. I can only urge you to become one of them.

David McDade

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