If you were fortunate enough to see the Metropolitan Opera’s December Live from the Met HD broadcast of Matthew Aucoin’s fifth opera, Eurydice, you have already experienced the brilliance of this 31-year-old composer, pianist, and author. Former Solti Conducting Apprentice at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2013–2015) and assistant conductor at The Met, Aucoin was the Los Angeles Opera’s first Artist-in-Residence (2016) as well as a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. Eurydice, which held audiences worldwide in rapt attention, was initially performed by LA Opera before coming to the Met.
Now, Gil Rose’s extraordinary Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) has issued Matthew Aucoin: Orphic Moments, a two-disc set of diverse works that Aucoin penned between 2015 and 2021. The recordings, all world premieres, include members of the American Modern Opera Company, co-founded by Aucoin, for whom many of the pieces were written.
I auditioned the first disc, issued as an SACD, in 24/44.1 file format; the second disc, in CD format only, was auditioned in 16/44.1. (Yes, you can hear the difference.) Although Aucoin qualifies the release in his liner note commentary — “This music is largely the fruit of my first years working as a professional musician, throughout my early and mid-twenties. These pieces are experiments, eruptions, love songs. They are breakings of ground, first attempts to clear through the dense, thorny underbrush on paths I continue to explore today” — no excuse need be made for music as compelling, provocative, and rewarding as his.
The collection is quite personal. It begins with Exodus for Tony, a 2021 arrangement of an earlier setting of “Tony: Ending the Life,” one of the last poems by James Merrill. Merrill’s brilliant grief-stricken elegy to Tony Parigory, who died of AIDS in 1993, was written less than two years before Merrill himself died. Movingly sung by Metropolitan Opera tenor Paul Appleby, the music is as wrenchingly eloquent and heartfelt as it is colorful.
Six compositions later, the recording ends with a recent work, Gallup (Na’nízhoozhí), whose two vocal movements, to text by Jake Skeets, are as homoerotic as it gets. Sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and bass-baritone Davóne Tines (in falsetto), the anything-but-concealed texts include the lines “He bodies into me / half cosmos, half coyote.” But it’s Aucoin’s music above all that drives Skeets’s meaning home.
One of the many remarkable aspects of Aucoin’s writing is the way it overwhelms and seduces with its rapid succession of unpredictable ideas. Listen, for example, to the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, performed by BMOP and the pianist who gave the 2016 premiere with the Alabama Symphony, Conor Hanick. Surely no other piano concerto sounds like this. The profound opening, filled with striking color contrasts, immerses us in a universe so unfathomable as to assure us that only mysteries devoid of assurance lie ahead. The music is so filled with suspense, so frightening in its exploration of the unknown that it made this listener feel as if the entire world threatened to close in without notice.
Beneath the surface calm of the second movement lies a fundamental unease, a false sense of security based on repetition. There are numerous instances where Aucoin demands of the piano (and, in Its Own Accord, of both violin and piano) that it resound at the very top of its range, as though depicting a force trying continually to break through. At 11:40 in the final movement, the music begins tumbling and twirling, as if propelled into the brilliance of the stars. After what seems like a brief homage to Philip Glass, Aucoin’s music moves far beyond, filled with wonder. “Otherworldly” only hints at what’s in store in this almost 37-minute concerto.
The Orphic Moment (2014), to text by Aucoin, contains intimations of what was to come in the opera Eurydice. With Costanzo and violinist Keir GoGwilt doing the honors, Aucoin supplies both music and text. Virtually without warning, we enter a strange and extremely visceral universe where memories blur, death surrounds us, and feelings verge out of control. The Orphic Moment seems to lead us into a paradoxical reality where all we can know is what cannot possibly be known. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how, only a few years later, Aucoin took advantage of Sarah Ruhl’s libretto for Eurydice to liberate himself from verbal concerns and deepen his language. If you haven’t seen Eurydice, you must.
There are numerous musical selections and interviews with Aucoin on YouTube. I’ve just begun his new book, The Impossible Art: Adventure in Opera and can’t wait to find more time to get into it. With only a few recordings of his music available — don’t confuse him with a singer of the same name — Matthew Aucoin: Orphic Moments deserves to be heard in all its well-recorded glory.