Nico Muhly
A Good Understanding
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Decca CD

Before he became a Juilliard graduate, a session musician for stars such as Jonsi and Philip Glass, and then a famous composer with a pile of prominent performances and a bright future with lots of commissions, Nico Muhly was first a boy soprano. A Good Understanding, his latest Decca CD, one of two on the imprint more or less released simultaneously, demonstrates a strong connection to these musical roots and the choral music tradition. He’s also fortunate to have found ardent and well-prepared advocates in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its conductor Grant Gershon. It’s a winning combination.

Bright Mass with Canons is a surprising and fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and postmodern elements. Its Kyrie is a good example of this. Underneath soaring vocal counterpoint, which often embodies the Anglican sound world of composers such as Whitbourne and Bennett is an underpinning of nervously skittering organ licks. The Sanctus thickens the broth further, its dense organ chords eliciting intriguing polychords from the voices.

The mass, as well as the cinematically swept Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings which follow, attractively wed these varied elements into well-crafted works. The Christmas anthem Senex Puerum Portabat is equally imaginative. It starts with long stretches of moody sostenuto cluster chords, but these give way to jubilant singing as well as bright flourishes and ebullient sliding passages for brass ensemble.

The title track, with its long legato lines for the voice somewhat curiously punctuated by boisterous percussion and a busy organ part, feels a bit more diffusely ordered, but there are a lot of very attractive moments. The LA Children’s Chorus provides a supple and affecting rendition. Expecting the Main Things from You, a triptych of Whitman settings, employs a kaleidoscope of textures circulating through the music, including pitched percussion and a prominent solo violin part. Muhly seems to favor interruptive accompaniments, and perhaps is responding to the digressive nature of the source texts with effusive variety, but the piece never quite settles in. The use of a “morse code” vocal accompaniment adds a fragmentary quality to some of the music. But again, it features affecting moments of skillful writing for both voices and instruments.

Thus, while its second half is uneven, all told the CD contains some of Muhly’s best work to date.

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