Nico Muhly: Viola Concerto


Nico Muhly (1981-) composed his vivacious Viola Concerto in 2014 due to a joint commission from the Orquesta Nacionales de España, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Festival de Saint Denis and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. It was premiered in February 2015 by the Orquesta Nacionales de España under the baton of Nicholas Collon. The work was given its USA premiere later that year in October by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.

The concerto was written for and dedicated to violist Nadia Sirota, who Muhly has had a long-standing artistic relationship with since they met at Julliard. The music is said to span a decade of friendship between the two, as well as highlighting the significance of composer-performer collaboration. Sirota prides her work on exploring the relationship between the imagined and the possible, pitting traditional and contemporary together to create groundbreaking new music.

The concerto was a hit with many critics with one saying:

“The concerto is a piece of rare, melodic beauty. Muhly and Sirota’s music goes straight for the heart without sacrificing any sophistication along the way.” 

Another highlighted the relationship between the two musicians:

“If there were to be some grand statement of what the two are capable of, then the Viola Concerto is certainly it. A celebration of a lasting artistic relationship – and, you presume, friendship – embodied in an inventive and thrilling pairing of works, viola front and centre throughout.”

The Music 

The concerto is in three movements, or ‘parts’, that are often played straight through, though there have been times where the piece stops briefly before carrying on. At around 24 minutes per performance, Muhly’s Viola Concerto is one of his most thrilling orchestral works.

Part I

Opening with a pizzicato theme, it’s set very quickly that the viola is at the absolute centre of this concerto. The orchestra are there to embellish the soloist at every turn, with tuned percussion, celeste and upper woodwind starting this off at the beginning. The angular melodies from the piccolo adds an opposing texture to the viola, which creates friction and drama. The use of double and triple stopping by the soloist also makes them stand out from the orchestra. 

The short solo interludes keeps the mysterious atmosphere moving before a bold fanfare-like orchestra moment. The brass and percussion keep this moving before an unusual viola interlude accompanied only by the timpani. 

The compound time signatures move fluently throughout giving you that ‘edge of your seat’ feeling. The tuned percussion add a touch of magic to the highly dramatic solo line which is vivacious, brilliant and rich in sound. The thin texture below highlights the importance of the soloist, with there being very little full orchestral unision in this movement. Part I ends with a touch of magic when the texture thins dramatically and the lyrical solo melodic line emerges from within. The rhythmic murmur played by the piccolo, flute and glockenspiel float around until the music slowly dies out before transitioning into the slow middle movement.

Part II

The slow second movement emphasises Muhly’s keen melodic writing. The slow moving soloist makes its way through the orchestra, with various instruments answering its calls. The strings play a rather static part at the beginning, with the woodwind embellishing and communicating the most intensely with the soloist. 

The texture builds, with the orchestra beginning to rumble from the bottom. The syncopated rhythms are at the forefront here as the soloist plays a sequence of repeated rhythms. The rich texture of the viola creates a woody timbre, meaning that the high-pitched instruments such as the piccolo and glockenspiel pierce through the musical veil easily.

There is certainly a sense of mystery and wonder in this movement, however this is soon interrupted by the soloist becoming more agitated. The orchestra latch onto the change in atmosphere, and so the texture begins to change and become much fuller and more foreboding. The powerful brass make their explosive entry, before the solo enters again delicately to take the music to its quiet end. 


Part III

The explosive final movement of Muhly’s Viola Concerto begins with an aggressive sequence from the soloist. This then sets the tone for the rest of the movement. The flourishing winds ‘introduce’ the soloist, who plays a bouncing folk-like rhythm. The regimented accompaniment from the piano and strings gives a sense of stability to the chaotic soloist line. 

The relentless solo line keeps the music driving forward. The muted brass add an interesting timbre to parts of this movement, with their piercing sounds dictating where the music may go next. Big brass and percussion stabs accentuate the constant sense of danger throughout, which is what keeps this music and atmosphere so exciting and alive throughout.

The lower strings and soloist unite for a syncopated rhythm played in unison. This section is bold and powerful which shows off part of Muhly’s exciting orchestral style. Musical dialogue is pertinent in this movement, with opposing themes coming from the orchestra and soloist, this amalgamates into a to-and-fro section of crotchets. As the orchestra and soloist battle, it is clear that although the forces of the orchestra are much greater, the soloist will win. 

A thrilling viola interlude is heard with no accompaniment whatsoever. Muhly’s use of extremes of ranges and techniques such as using harmonics and double-stopping makes this a truly scintillating part of the finale movement. 

Honing back to the previous movements, the music takes a journey of discovery through many of the previous musical ideas. The concerto ends with an ambiguous chord from the soloist and orchestra after a brief look back at the opening pizzicato section.

Final Thoughts

Nico Muhly’s dynamic Viola Concerto explores the relationship between the orchestra and viola as well as the relationship between the composer and soloist. The vivacious writing from start to finish keeps you gripped from each movement. 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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