Extraordinary technical finesse shines with Nico Muhly concert

Nico Muhly And The New ★★★★½
Australian Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Recital Centre, December 4

In one of the most glamorous concerts of the year, the Australian Chamber Orchestra Collective played two world premieres, two Australian premieres, and Duet, a noted work by minimalist founding father Steve Reich.

The main attraction was New York composer Nico Muhly’s new violin concerto, Shrink, commissioned by the ACO and Melbourne Recital Centre for soloist Pekka Kuusisto. It received its first performance, as did a short violin duet by Muhly associate Alex Mills.

Pekka Kuusisto and Nico Muhly perform at ACO's Nico Muhly and the New.

The Australian firsts were a quartet by another rising US composer, Missy Mazzoli, arranged for expanded forces, and the stunningly evocative Birds of Paradise by Sweden’s Andrea Tarrodi.

Each work served to emphasise what a brilliant virtuoso orchestra the ACO is, with extraordinary technical finesse and almost miraculous ensemble playing – without a conductor, but breathing as one and mastering a vast variety of challenges.

Shrink was Muhly’s third world premiere in Australia this year, following two smaller commissions. The prolific composer, 38, equally at home at the Metropolitan Opera or with indie rock, has had a long collaboration and friendship with Kuusisto, who met the concerto’s ferocious demands with relish.

The first movement, built around ninths, required exuberance and vitality; the second, focusing on sixths, was ethereal and resonant. The last movement, built on thirds, saw Kuusisto in frantic, perpetual motion.

The Mills violin duet – pairing Kuusisto and ACO member Liisa Pallandi – used dissonance, harmony and textural variety, often exploring the edge of the note. It also reminded that, with minimalism, a little idea often has to travel a long way. Mazzoli’s richly textured work was deeply satisfying.

A glitch meant no programs until interval, a serious failure with works few in the audience could know.

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