“It is impossible to find anyone in the world today who is young and not ill,” muses André Breton in Chiaki Kawamata’s novel Death Sentences. “Youth itself is a kind of disease.” There is in youth something that exerts a powerful hold on the imagination. Its freshness, its arrogance, its promise – all of these building a magnetic aura that exerts a powerful hold on our consciousness. Especially so when youth is bound to an artist wielding a mastery of technique that belies the tenderness of their years. One only has to think of the respective cults of, say, Mozart and Rimbaud for starters. Yet there is also the danger of this seduction operating like a disease, infecting otherwise perfectly reasonable, clear-minded people and turning them into adoring sycophants; unable to look past the glittering allure of youth and inspect the artist under the cold light of rational objectivity.

Nico Muhly © Samantha West
Nico Muhly
© Samantha West

This problem is especially pervasive in classical music circles. Any chance to prove that this increasingly niche (and graying) market is still hip and young is unfailingly milked to the raw by press and marketing departments alike. The task of separating the hype from the artist’s body of work can become difficult.

Are we listening to the music? Or are we only listening to the reputation of its creator?

These were questions that arose time and again earlier this week during the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert featuring the music of Nico Muhly. In the past few years, Muhly, who is just over 30 years old, has emerged as the great white hope of contemporary classical music. Ensembles the world over – most notably the arch-conservative Metropolitan Opera – have been vying for his compositions. His roots in both classical music and pop (he has collaborated with, among other musicians, Philip Glass and Björk) is a marketing team’s dream. He also boasts impressive “street cred” in the classical music world. Not only has Muhly earned much praise from the classical music press, but elder composers have also been unrestrained in their accolades. No less an established figure of American music than John Adams lent his official imprimatur by leading last Tuesday night’s program.

But the impression gained from actually listening to Muhly’s music went contrary to expectations – and the strident hype.

The program’s center of gravity was the composer’s 2007 concerto for electric violin and orchestra, Seeing is Believing. Seeing may indeed have been believing, but listening left quite a few doubts.

An arabesque-like figure on the electric violin (played by soloist Thomas Gould) which is then electronically looped initiates the composition. The placid mood of the start is rustled by chirping woodwinds (the composer refers to these figures as “insect music”), after which the concerto alternates between sections of meditation and scurrying propulsion. At its close it returns to the music of its opening bars, then fades out.

Though employing a distinctly contemporary idiom, the music was by no means difficult to listen to. At moments it even verged on the diatonic. But the music, with its wispy sonorities, seemed to say very little, if anything, either as “pure music” or as expression.

According to the program notes, the composer drew inspiration for the work from the “exciting and superstitious practice of observing and mapping the sky”. If there was any extra-musical vision to be had from the music, however, it was that of someone staring blank-eyed into the ceiling with jaw agape. It was static music; dull. Even dreary. There was nothing in the music that one could deem extraordinary – not even to hate. It was like finding oneself in a musical purgatory.

At the opening of each half were arrangements by Muhly. A pair of motets by William Byrd in the first half; a pair of Icelandic folk songs in the second. Each arrangement evinced a sharp ear for subtle tone colors (the marimba was used to especially fine effect), but ultimately added little to the music.

On the second half were works by Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason. Like Muhly, who is nearly his exact contemporary, Bjarnason has found himself equally comfortable in pop and classical music. His aesthetic is also similar to Muhly’s in that it has a nervous fragility which sounds strangely inert.

Best of his works was Over Light Earth, which was inspired by paintings of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Its shimmering sonorities were pleasant; even attractive at times.

Less successful was Bow to String, a cello concerto composed for cellist Saeunn Thornsteinsdottir, who was on hand to perform the work. A ponderous, lugubrious piece in three movements, it manages to ape the stock gestures of poignancy and expressiveness without the music itself being poignant or expressive. It was a portrait of expression – and a detached one at that – rather than expression itself.

Only a few days before, I had attended a concert by new music collective Synchromy at Occidental College in Highland Park. Their music had everything Muhly’s and Bjarnason’s lacked – invention, purpose, and most of all vitality. As my mind struggled to maintain its concentration during the Green Umbrella concert, I thought to myself that the music of the Synchromy composers would have been a worthier inclusion on a Disney Hall program than anything I was listening to that night. Which goes to show you that in classical music, as in so many other disciplines, it is not enough to have talent – it really is about who you know.