"'Seeing Is Believing' immerses the listener in a night transfigured by Nico Muhly's sweeping vision. He calls up a starscape of clear-nocturnal wonder, sweetly juicing his lead for Thomas Gould's six-string electric violin. Listen at 11:20, when a flourish right out of Byzantium announces the composer's inspiration, what he calls "the ancient practice of observing and mapping the sky." Shortly after that, at 12:48, Muhly lays a proud cadence on the table, the violin's insistent search racing around it. Barely do you hear a muted trumpet's wry question when, at 14:00 Muhly throws down the gauntlet again. And from there, the piece unfolds into a high, bright night-field of Nicholas Collon's richly colored fluency with the Aurora Orchestra. Big brass and those "rapturous pulses" Muhly loves spiral up around Gould's assured solos, at times as edgy as a fiddler in "L'histoire du soldat." This 25-minute concerto, crawling with what Muhly terms "random, insect-like formulations," is an arresting new statement of his developing voice, so generously articulated by Gould, Collon, and the Aurora.
There are also three shorter but substantive key works from Muhly on the CD: the Webern-Weelkes wonder "By All Means" (get a load of John Reid's piano at 4:30); the plucky Gibbons-based "Motion"; and "Step Team," my favorite. Its conversational exchanges between strings and woodwinds are shoved around by hussy-brass into piano-paced arguments. For those of us who have loved Muhly's "Detailed Instructions," echoes of continuity (11:25) travel awfully well here, in the work of this guy who talks so fast but smiles at us in his music with unhurried, and sometimes brilliantly sad grace. Listen to this "Step Team" end. And then end. And then finally end. Lovely.
A radiant revelation here, too: three settings of motets (at Nick Collon's wise request) of Tudor-Jacobean composers Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd. My favorite is "Bow Thine Ear, O Lord." No decent deity could refuse such a request when it sounds like this from Muhly. The orderly restraint of our modern knave's nave gradually glows-up in a resplendent Aurora of such detailed and instructive brassy resolution at 2:00 that what Muhly calls "scandalously lush" is braced for good in our hearts.
Nico Muhly is on a superb tear. We do expect the main things from him. And we have good reason. This entry in his growing body of recorded work has been released, handsomely packaged by Decca, in the week of the English National Opera's world premiere of his opera "Two Boys" in London. The librettist is the formidable Craig Lucas ("The Light in the Piazza," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Longtime Companion," "The Dying Gaul"), the staging is directed by Bartlett Sher with projection designs by 59 Productions. Online buzz about the composer is building, of course. And Q2 is rolling out a full week of "Muhly mania." Q2 is the superb streaming contemporary-classical service of WQXR in New York. Found at Q2live dot org, it has become a major seat of Muhly's gathering momentum, a key force in helping audiences find him and vice-versa, thanks especially to the tireless advocacy of Muhly's colleague and friend, violist and Q2 host Nadia Sirota.
So quickly are things moving for Nico Muhly, this 29-year-old former Philip Glass associate, that it may be hard for some to believe reports of his primacy in the pantheon of "new music" makers today. So "see" for yourself: hearing is believing.