Muhly Organ Work A Cavalcade Of Moods And Colors

James Conlon led the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s ‘Register’ at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Dan Steinberg)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — James Conlon usually practices his trade with Los Angeles Opera in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But now and then, he also guest-conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is merely a few steps away from the Chandler on the other side of 1st Street, one of the easiest commutes possible in this city. And so, between the runs of Bernstein’s Candide and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice at the opera, Conlon squeezed in some dates with the Phil, unveiling the world premiere of a Nico Muhly organ concerto, Register, along the way.

Conlon coupled Muhly with Ravel orchestrations of two piano pieces.
(Bonnie Perkinson)

On either side of the Muhly piece lay two Ravel orchestrations of piano pieces — one by Mussorgsky (the inevitable Pictures at an Exhibition), the other by Ravel himself (Le Tombeau de Couperin). Both of the companion pieces are memorials — Le Tombeau for friends of Ravel who were killed in World War I, Pictures for the artist Victor Hartmann. In yet another thread running through the concert, some passages in the Muhly concerto reveal a Baroque influence, as does Le Tombeau. And Register happens to open with the crack of a whip — just like the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major. How’s that for integrated programming, intentional or not?

According to his program note, Muhly likes to think of the pipe organ as a giant synthesizer, using the stops to add or subtract from a timbre as one would use filters and an oscillator selector on a synth. In that way, he claims to create “sudden shifts of mood, or register” — hence the title of the piece.

James McVinnie was the organ soloist in ‘Register.’ (Magnús Andersen)

There are sudden shifts in mood over the single-movement concerto’s 20-minute-plus length. After the whip crack comes a strange collection of grunts and bumps from the orchestra. Then organist and longtime Muhly friend James McVinnie plays Baroque-flavored exercises in a light registration that are soon taken up by the rest of the group as the organ pedals rumble. A darker train of thought takes hold at about the eight-minute mark, with the pedals smudging some of the detail elsewhere. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the piece, there is a long, mighty organ cadenza, mostly for the pedals, that eventually becomes rather ponderous.

Nico Muhly

Toward the end, we seem to be heading into a meditative benediction, with the violas playing a lyrical tune for the first time in the concerto. Then, suddenly, everyone snaps out of it, and the engines start up again; yet before the vehicle can get rolling, the power is abruptly shut off and the piece is over. One thing I’ve noticed is that many composers today are having a tough time coming up with endings that sound like organic closing statements or otherwise satisfying conclusions. I can understand an abrupt ending for, say, a minimalist piece, but this one made no sense to me — at least not on a first hearing Feb. 25.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was the highlight of the afternoon – a wonderful, even rapturous performance that looked back to a manner that seems to have gone out of style. Most performances these days — especially of the Prélude and concluding Rigaudon — are just too fast, whereas Conlon chose more leisurely tempos that were a bit slower than Ravel’s metronome markings but still felt exactly right in this context. These tempos allowed room for him to extract a wealth of subtle nuances from each phrase and to give the dance rhythms a steady lilt and swing. Listen to André Cluytens’ recording — part of his complete Ravel orchestral music anthology that is a model for French style in this music — and you’ll get an idea of the foundation that Conlon was building upon.

Maurice Ravel in 1925. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Pictures at an Exhibition is heard constantly around these parts, almost always in the Ravel orchestration, but those who have been overexposed to this showpiece were tacitly urged to listen a little harder. Conlon explained to the audience that Ravel based his 1922 orchestration on a piano version that was available then, but Mussorgsky’s original wasn’t published in the West until 1931, so Conlon took it upon himself to revise Ravel’s version with amendments from the original. As such, they were mostly small details, the major addition being a nearly verbatim repeat of the opening “Promenade” inserted between the “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” and “Limoges: the Market” episodes as per the piano score.

Perhaps the changes were oversold, but the result was that it did focus the attention — and the LA Phil performed with a rapt involvement and attention to detail that was missing the last time they did Pictures at Hollywood Bowl, in August 2017. Let’s hope they retain that involvement when they have to perform Pictures again at the Bowl in July.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.