Through the course of my research on Nico Muhly’s works, his cello concerto drew my attention immediately. This was not surprising since, after all, it was premiered by my professor, world renowned cellist, Zuill Bailey. Muhly incorporated a number of influences to create this piece. The concerto’s very first measure was a direct quote from Dutilleux’s Metaboles. There also seemed to be an homage to Stravinsky’s rhythms, Ravel’s impressionistic lyricism and Glass’s minimalism. And yet, the concerto was set in the traditional Classical style structure, a three movement fast-slow-fast piece. It is safe to say that even though Muhly’s writing did not always provide a feeling of tonal stability or an overall sense of cohesion between the orchestra and the soloist, it is, nevertheless, a piece that fits well in the traditional writing of the Western art classical tradition, combining the simplicity of the Classical era and the ambiguity of 20th-century works.
Muhly composed this cello concerto for solo cello accompanied by a small chamber orchestra. The first movement shies away from the traditional tempo-marking-based titles, and is referred to as “Part One”. Here, the cello and the orchestra seem to be in conflict with one another. While the cello is overflowing with lyricism, the orchestra is trying to distract it with the repetition of Stravinsky-like accents on the first beat of each measure. This interruption of the emotionally charged cadenza-resembling melody in the cello brings a level of stability to the piece, keeping the meter, which is constantly exchanging between triple and duple, grounded. Adding to the metric continuity, the harmonic textures in the orchestra are reiterated as well. Although the key is ambivalent due to the significant use of chromaticism, the repetition of intervals brings a sense of familiarity to the listener and provides a safe environment for the piece.
Muhly sets the first movement in a ternary form, A B A, a form commonly heard and used in the Classical period. The return to the A section serves as yet another technique through which Muhly very successfully balances out the movement and facilitates with ease the connection of the audience to the piece, as he provides them a sense of home, a return to a familiar place, at the very end. Muhly contrasts the expressiveness in the A section with the virtuosic B section, both dynamically and technically. The B section musically and rhythmically unites the orchestra and the soloist, creating an ominous, frantic feeling. This distress is achieved through the solo cello’s virtuosic, driven line, the repeated fast passages in the strings, muted entrances in the brass that are rarely aligned and persistently varied in rhythm, as well as the off-beat accents in the percussion that seem to resemble Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. With the conclusion of the B section and the returning A section, the movement proceeds attacca into Part Two, the second movement.
Nico Muhly composed a piece that could, without a doubt, be categorized as a modern, 21st-century work. It is an emotionally soaring work with great variety of style, ranging from impressionism and expressionism to minimalism, with the hint of the beloved Classical style. However, Muhly’s greatness is not only heard in how well he is able to infuse different styles to create an original work. His true genius is recognized through knowing his audience and providing them with a revolutionary, attention grabbing piece that they can identify with, appreciate, and most importantly, enjoy.