Following a successful performance at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge on Jan. 3, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and American composer Nico Muhly brought spontaneous whimsy to a Sunday evening performance at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The duo’s program included selections from Phillip Glass, Johann Sebastian Bach, Muhly’s 2012 album Drones, as well as traditional Finnish folk songs. It was absolutely delightful.
Kuusisto’s vocals with his and Muhly’s sparse instrumentation reminded me of Iceland’s Sigur Ros. The Director of Music at the Phillips, Caroline Mousett, said in her introduction that Kuusisto enjoys improvisation. This got me thinking about classical music and performance in a post-rock era. These two young performers incorporated improvisation, a quality most often associated with rock and jazz, into a musical style which I associate more closely with rote performance. (I can’t say I pull from as broad an experience with classical performance as I do with more contemporary genres.) Improvisation makes live performance more exciting, as the element of surprise should never be undervalued. I enjoyed the juxtaposition between Muhly’s contemporary compositions and Kuusisto’s folk songs. It was a performance the could have taken place only in 2014.
Kuusisto and Muhly are very funny and endlessly energetic. Yesterday evening’s performance was the first I have seen at the Phillips Collection. It was pretty formal, but not stuffy. There were moments I wanted to scream out, like at a rock concert, but I controlled myself.
Muhly wore multiple layers of flowy, black Alexander Wang-style garments, which he removed toward the end of the performance to muffle the piano.
Included here are two photos of sketches I drew during the performance.