This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The last time Nico Muhly was in Utah, he took one last early-morning hike in the St. George area, drove to Las Vegas, caught a plane to London, took a train to a friend's apartment, removed his shoes and discovered they still had the red dirt of Utah clinging to them. "I got imbued with it," the composer recalled a few months later in a phone interview from London.
The experience sums up one of the themes of Muhly's "Control: Five Landscapes for Orchestra," which the Utah Symphony and music director Thierry Fischer will premiere and record Dec. 4 and 5 as part of an initiative spotlighting American composers. As Muhly wrote in his preface to the score, "We can control the landscape, but it has a way of reminding us of its permanence."
Utah's landscapes and their relationship with its people fascinate the Vermont-born Muhly. His first impression of the Beehive State was the cover photo on a recording of Olivier Messiaen's "From the Canyons to the Stars," which was inspired by the French composer's visit to Bryce Canyon. Even more than the photo, the monumental orchestral suite which is about so much more than scenery captivated Muhly, who was 11 at the time.
"What Messiaen reacted to here, and I have as well, was the simultaneous wildness of the place and the fact it had been claimed in an explicitly religious way," said Muhly, now 34, whose eclectic career includes collaborations with Philip Glass, Björk and Grizzly Bear.
Muhly tagged along on the Utah Symphony's Mighty 5 tour of the state's national parks in August 2014 and returned in March so he could see the same places in a different season. Northern Utah was also on his itinerary; "seeing Park City and St. George in one day is kind of intense," he said. He likened these expeditions to a trip to the grocery store, where you buy produce that strikes your fancy and see what you can make of it when you get home though he was gathering musical rather than culinary inspiration.
"Really what I was looking for was that shock of the first time seeing [the Utah landscapes]," he said. "Driving around alone or hiking early in the morning, I looked for ways to shock myself."
Muhly attended several Utah Symphony rehearsals and performances. "I really felt I was writing for individual people in the orchestra and Thierry and [Abravanel] Hall," he said. He admired, for example, the playing of principal cellist Rainer Eudeikis, so he made sure to give Eudeikis a solo moment; he noticed that "the percussionists are all super outdoorsy," so he wrote athletic passages for percussion, including one in which all the mallet instruments are played in unison. Fischer's ability to "turn on a dime" also impressed the composer.
"Thierry likes to have performances feel volatile and shocking," he said.
Fischer, likewise, said he was blown away by Muhly's enthusiasm and creativity at their first meeting. The finished score "inspires me immediately looking at it. … Look at the clarity," he said, flipping through the score. "It's quite approachable and transparent."
The upcoming performances in Abravanel Hall will incorporate a visual presentation created by Joshua Higgason, who also accompanied the orchestra on the Mighty 5 tour. Don't expect to see a movie projected above the orchestra with the music timed to a click track, said Higgason, adding that "telling stories on rectangles" isn't really his thing. The images will instead be shown on "a series of swaths of bleached canvas," he said. Higgason will run the video, which gives him "some leeway in where it can get edited and cut" to serve the orchestra's performance.
"Ultimately, the work I'm doing shouldn't take center stage," said Higgason, who finds the experience of seeing and hearing live music inherently exciting. "If what I make takes away from that, I'm doing the piece and the performance a disservice."
"Control" is in five sections: "Landform," which depicts large geologic structures; "Mountain," a mountain landscape in summer; "Beehive," Muhly's nod to the state symbol and the industriousness it represents; "Petroglyph & Tobacco," the harsh environment where the region's indigenous people have thrived; and "Red Dust." It's 27 ½ minutes long, the composer said, but "if it goes faster, I'm not going to be mad."
From the canyons to the hall
The Utah Symphony presents the world premiere of Nico Muhly's "Control: Five Landscapes for Orchestra." Thierry Fischer conducts, with video enhancement by Joshua Higgason. "Control" is the last of three new works by American composers commissioned by the Utah Symphony to be recorded live for a late March release. The others are "EOS (Goddess of the Dawn), a Ballet for Orchestra" by Augusta Read Thomas, which the orchestra premiered in February; and "Switch," a percussion concerto by Andrew Norman, which the orchestra and soloist Colin Currie premiered the first weekend in November and will reprise in New York City's Carnegie Hall in April.
Plus • Also on the program is Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, featuring the Utah Symphony Chorus, singers from University of Utah choirs, and soloists Celena Shafer, Sarah Coit, Eric Barry and Michael Dean.
When • Friday and Saturday, Dec. 4 and 5, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18-$85 ($5 more on concert day; discounts for students, those under 30 and groups); utahsymphony.org
Music of Nico Muhly will be featured alongside works of Mozart, including the Concerto for Flute and Harp with Mercedes Smith and Matthew Tutsky as soloists, on the NOVA Chamber Music Series.
When • Sunday, Nov. 29, 3 p.m.
Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20; $18 for seniors; free for students; novaslc.org