A masterpiece was born Wednesday night at the Barns of Wolf Trap. Ben Jonson's 399-year-old play Volpone took on a new life in the world premiere of an opera of the same name by composer John Musto…This opera is likely to be taken up by many other American companies. - The Washington Post (2004)
Each act builds to a riotous fugal ensemble, worthy successors to those famous Rossini finales, yet with a contemporary sonic palette. The musical influences of Mr. Musto's score are as disparate as a rumba and a quote from "Don Giovanni," woven into a fresh and original organic whole. - The Wall Street Journal
Truly funny operas, like “Volpone” (originally commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation), are rare these days. We've been in a dry spell, it seems, since the day Rossini retired. In a world that tends to regard comedies as second-class works of art, “Volpone" stands out not only for its humor but also its brilliant marriage of words and music. - The Washington Post (2007)
LATER THE SAME EVENING
Musto's music [in “Later the Same Evening”] courses through impressions of unhinged tonal harmonies along with brilliantly conceived counterpoint, especially in the cast's magnificently rendered ensembles. The vocal solos often waft into heightened expression, capturing the pitches and rhythms of real speech. - The Washington Post
Yet like Hopper, Mr. Musto is a modernist, and while his singable, expressive melodies and transparent, colorful orchestrations make his music accessible, it also has a bracing, unsentimental quality. - The Wall Street Journal
I admire the skill that Mr. Musto demonstrates in this score, which combines elements of the Copland/Bernstein style with snatches of popular songs and urban razzle-dazzle. Mr. Musto knows how to write for voices so that singers can make words clear. The ensemble scenes are expertly rendered. - The New York Times
Musto captures the bittersweet aura of the piece perfectly in a score that never wastes a note or a moment of the audience's time. His accessible but sophisticated style has many roots in American musical theater -- which makes the passing references to the hit show the characters are presumably watching all the more delicious -- but the flow of conversation and mood is elegantly
captured in a score that combines an unerring feel for smart text setting and pointed instrumental commentary that is both melodically graceful and harmonically pungent. Musto's many songs are treasures of the American repertory, and here he establishes himself with even more distinction as a skilled opera composer. - Musical America
...arresting in its expressive force. - The New York Sun
...Musto’s lacework music transforms the story into something delicate and bittersweet. - New York Magazine
Like his full-length opera, Volpone—commissioned by WTOC a few years back and recently transformed into a Grammy Award-nominated recording—John Musto’s Bastianello wraps itself around an amusing series of encounters derived from several versions of an old Italian folk tale.
Bastianello opens and closes with the narrative of Bastianello the younger (tenor Rodell Rosel), a college student who reminisces about the early married days of his dad, Luciano (Alexander Tall).
Infuriated by a foolish mistake committed by his young bride Amadora (mezzo Faith Sherman), Luciano lights out for the territories. He vows not to return until he’s encountered six numskulls who exceed Amadora in stupidity. His mom, Ortensia (soprano Rebekah Camm), more or less approves. But Amadora’s dad, Bastianello the elder (bass Nicholas Masters) is appalled.
Luciano eventually encounters three sets of idiots. Their unbelievable cluelessness is eventually set aright by his practical advice. Except for the final idiot who proves to be something more—someone who has actually learned the meaning of life through his tragic mistake.
Musto’s music cleverly provides the psychological backdrop of this tale. The accompanists weave a magical, contemporary tapestry of sound behind the singers, providing hints of what is going on beneath their frequently banal statements and observations.
But perhaps the most moving music here is in scene 6 in which Luciano confronts the ultimately wise fool, Lino, at the edge of a lake on a moonlit night. Here, the younger man discovers that Lino’s apparently goofy behavior is in fact his compulsive atonement for a foolish criticism that indirectly caused the demise of his wife. Musto’s vocal lines and ghostly instrumental backdrop become like a musical eclipse, transforming light into dark, evoking a genuinely poignant moment of tragedy and unbearable loss. It’s a magical, heartbreaking moment that instantly transforms this little opera into something much more than light entertainment. - The Washington Post
Musto spins flaxen pop into golden art. - New York Newsday
John Musto's Piano Trio was an exception. Attractive, songful and beautifully written for the medium, it was in two movements, of which the second soon turned lively but did not forget to come back and pick up the lyrical burden of the first. - The New York Times
Composers often become eclectic to hide behind a lack of individuality. This cannot be said of John Musto, whose chamber music on this disc wraps arms around many musical styles even as it delivers on its own appealing, colourful and moving terms. Noted for songs and theatre works, as well as sterling pianism, Musto also is a natural when it comes to instrumental interplay. Every moment in these works emerges in the context of cohesive argument and novel design.
The Piano Trio introduces Musto's trademark nervous urban energy and ability to give each instrument a vital place in scampering, poetic or misty activity. The songfulness of the second movement owes something to the cabaret world of Poulenc, though the music's alternation of insouciance and longing sounds like no composer other than Musto.
His Sextet places strings and clarinet in jazzy, klezmer-tinged conversation. The clarinet shapes playful lines through the extremes of its range and enters into fugal conflict with colleagues. Hints of Jewish folklore pervade the music, whose clarinet wails and slides rub shoulders with wild flights and melancholic utterances. The rhythmic energy and whirling motion of the last movement's dance very well might rouse you from your listening seat.
Musto has scored his Divertimento for the novel combination of flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and percussion. The atmosphere again pays respects to Poulenc (whose naughty, sentimental Sextet often is evoked), while also bestowing affectionate nods on West Side Story and Bartók. Musto has a gift for melding ingredients into a musical stew of delicious and spicy flavours. (Musto’s) Chamber Music on this disc wraps arms around many musical styles, even as it delivers on its own appealing, colorful and moving terms. The players who make up Music from Copland House sounds like they relish every phrase. Everyone seems completely immersed in this captivating and penetrating activity, as likely will music lovers smart enough to add this disc to their collection. - Gramophone
In short, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying programme, expertly played by the members of Music from Copland House. - BBC Magazine
Musto loves jazzy phrases and a "big city" kind of New York cosmopolitan idiom. He could hardly wish for a better advocate in the crack players in Music From Copland House. - AllMusic Guide
...solid, attractive, well-argued, and sure-footed works... - Sequenza21
This was a work [Clarinet Sextet] that grabbed you by the throat and commanded you attention. It was full of energy, spiky accents, jazzy clarinet playing, and rhythmic vitality. Even in the second movement, marked Tranquillo, so much energy persisted that there was hardly any serenity, but rather a restless sense of tension always below the surface. - Peninsula Reviews
To close the evening was John Musto’s exuberant Sextet – not only well crafted but clearly a crowd-pleaser (no contradiction), and one could only sit back and enjoy the musicians’ digging in to this meaty score with relish. Following a scorchingly dramatic cadenza by Mr. Bermel, the last movement races faster and faster to a tension-filled ending that is almost guaranteed to have the audience cheering with its virtuosic demands, and here, it worked. And praise for the insightful programming, which paired two complementary works in the first half, and in the second showed the (no doubt completely coincidental) links between Prokofiev’s small gem, and Mr. Musto’s bit of opalescent fire written eighty years later. - Seen and Heard International Concert Review“
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1
Mr, Musto’s elegant, fluent music is happily postcolonial...
Its three movements continue, rather than reject, the sweep and momentum of Romantic concertos; the smoothly handled orchestrations form a natural progression from past practices to present ones; and Mr. Musto, especially in his elaborate first movement has a sense of formal tightness of the kind the old sonata form always gives, with its recurring themes (pairs of winds in imitation, for example), an arc of development punctuated by a long cadenza and in general the experience of a round trip undertaken and completed.
Briefer and more reticent, the slow movement sounds closer to his heart. Ambling ragtime music penetrates a kind of musical scrim, seductive but elusive. One thinks of Ravel dressing up American jazz in French clothes and even more of Charles Ives straining for something just out of reach.
The Romantic tradition is carried forward in Mr. Musto’s piece, but the colors have been sharpened and the textures made more transparent.
His harmonic language behaves like tonal music, even if the combinations of notes rarely conform to it. Tradition is not his enemy. He accommodates, negotiates and gives the past something of his own. Big, bright urban bangs end the piece in distinctly American style. - The New York Times
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2
John Musto took to the stage to give an authoritative reading of his Piano Concerto No. 2. Mr. Musto’s energetic work is written in the standard three-movement sonata form, but its outer movements are infused with the same basic elements that inspired Bernstein. Latin rhythms with Stravinsky-like shifts in time signature provided a perfect vehicle not only for Mr. Musto’s ample pianistic technique, but also for the individual members of the ensemble. The wind writing in particular, which included the effective use of bass clarinet throughout, was expertly crafted, and the terse, slow movement with muted Miles Davis-like trumpet solos provided a perfect atonal respite. - The New York Sun
“The solo line, which Mr. Musto played, was by turns chromatic, jazzy, lyrical, angular and spirited, and the dialogues between piano and orchestra gave the piece an appealing vitality and coherence.” - The New York Times
Two-time Emmy Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, John Musto, made a special appearance at this performance, likely to hear the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. Oddly enough, it just so happened that Musto was also giving his own premiere. We are so far removed from the era of Mozart, who, besides composing occasionally, boasted equal proficiency on the flute, violin and piano. Half a century has gone by since the premieres of the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos, when Seryoja himself tore fire from the keys. The existence of a classical musician today is often one of specialization; composers compose, and players play. Crudely put, it is a world where few can put their money where their mouth is.
Musto's performance of his own Piano Concerto left little doubt as to why he stands as a dazzling anomaly in our midst...Though his early jazz training may have served him well during the work's fiendishly tricky passagework, it quickly became clear that Musto's chops would have put many a pianist to shame - classical, jazz or otherwise. As to his style of writing, strict categorization cannot be applied, for the elements of flash contrasted wonderfully with the simple beauty of his melodies, providing us with tangible proof that it is possible to transcend genre stereotypes without sacrificing substance. To have heard the world-premiere of this fantastic, fun new concerto by any other pianist than the composer himself would have been a great disservice to listeners, not to mention a downright shame. - Classical New Jersey Society Review
A Concerto for Caramoor (July 14, 2006)
Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News
The Steinway basement is one of those only-in-New-York places, where great pianists - Steinway artists - come to practice, practice, practice a stone's throw from Carnegie Hall. They don't just practice in these two huge nondescript rooms among dozens of 9-foot concert grand pianos, some covered by plastic tarps. They come to play, to test, to listen, to put pianos through their paces. And when they find what they like, their instrument of choice, that particular Steinway is sent to the venue where the artist is to play.
On Monday, Steinway artist John Musto, who is Caramoor's composer-in-residence, and Michael Barrett, who is its chief executive, took to the Steinway basement to take Musto's latest composition for a spin - the Caramoor-commissioned Piano Concerto No. 1, which gets its world premiere Saturday night. With pianist Philip Fisher playing the orchestra parts on a piano next to Musto's, Barrett works through the three-movement score, stopping and starting, working on tempo and dynamics. They begin with the propulsive and dark first movement. Well into it, Barrett, a conductor getting to know a new piece of music, slows the tempo from what Musto has written. "I want to make a big moment there, if you'll allow it, Johnny," Barrett says. Musto agrees.
Later, after trying it a bit at the new tempo, Musto pauses. "Mikey, I like that idea," he says, "but maybe not so much. I don't want to put the brakes on this. It's really rolling." It's the kind of easy give and take - Johnny and Mikey, old friends - that makes this rehearsal and Musto's tenure at Caramoor a relaxing exercise.
That's not to say Musto has been relaxing. He has been working harder than a composer-in-residence has a right to - programming three chamber-music concerts and playing in each, delivering his piano concerto and working on a string quartet work for next season.
This comes in the same year that his Piano Concerto No. 2 had its premiere, at the Miller Theater at Columbia University in April. Musto was at the piano for that performance, and he'll be at the piano on Saturday. This is a composer who walks the walk.
And the right people are taking notice. Musto was a Pulitzer finalist in 1996 for his orchestra song cycle "Dove Sta Amore." His scores for television have won two Emmys. In March, The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Wladimir and Rhoda Lakond Award, "given to a mid-career composer of demonstrated talent," according to the citation.
Musto, 52, seems to be enjoying his Caramoor experience. "It's my favorite thing that I've done since the last favorite thing I did - writing an opera for Wolf Trap," he says. That was "Volpone," his first-ever opera in 2004 in Virginia, also under the baton of Michael Barrett. The Washington Post called it a masterpiece.
"Working with them was so wonderful and easy and it's the same way here," Musto says.
Saturday's world premiere is of a work begun in 1988 and assembled in 1996 as three movements. (That's why it is No. 1 in Musto's catalog even though it will be premiered three months after his second piano concerto.) Having put it together in 1996, he put it in a drawer, only revisiting it on occasion when other compositions needed the boost of a "little melodic idea." "Some things went into my piano trio, some things went into something else," he says. Yes, at times, John Musto stripped his first piano concerto for parts. But it worked both ways: A song he had written ended up, in another form, in the third movement of the first concerto, a perpetual-motion demonstration of Musto's piano prowess.
When he dusted off the concerto a couple of years ago in preparation for his Caramoor residency, he found it was more complicated than he had remembered. Then he got to work. "I looked for every opportunity to simplify and make it easier to play, to provide the least amount of stress in rehearsal and actually get it up and running," he says. "You don't want the feeling which frequently you get, where you say, `Oh, if I just had one more rehearsal.' " Still, there is precious little rehearsal time. Besides this basement session, which was for the soloist and the conductor, there will be just three rehearsals with the 65-piece Orchestra of St. Luke's before Saturday's premiere.
The first movement, Musto says, is dark and lyrical, the second is a short "Mahlerian" ragtime and the third is jazzier perpetual-motion performance. All this from a man who has never studied composition. Instead, he says, he's learned by playing. To play Beethoven, Musto says, you have to take his music apart and understand it. "That's the real composition lesson," he has said. "When you play Bach, you're studying with Bach." If Musto has learned by playing, he's also learned by listening, the jazz influence a direct result of being the son of a jazz guitarist. "The jazz element, what really appeals to me - besides the energy of it which comes from the rhythm - is the intersection of jazz rhythms and spiky melodic ideas and counterpoint. "Jazz counterpoint fascinates me," he adds. "I love that sound. You hear it in `West Side Story.' ... There's a forward motion to jazz counterpoint that is very energetic."
Lest his friend be pigeonholed as a composer with only one or two influences, Barrett is quick to point out that Musto is the sum of his far-flung experiences. "People of our generation who are classically trained and who grew up in America have grown up with television and movies and popular culture and the radio and pop music," Barrett says. "We draw from everything." "A lot of John's music has bits of Catholic liturgical music in it," Barrett says. "I'll say, `What's that?' and he'll say, `Oh, that's an old chant. Don't you know? That's from the fifth ordinary of the blah, blah, blah.' " "And I say, `No, I don't know.' I hear that it's religious and really old.' But he has a source for it. And he'll say, `Oh, yeah. I went to Catholic school..."
Musto is laughing at this point, but he agrees. "I think a lot of composers are like that now," Musto says. "Maybe composers have always been like that. Bach was like that; Mahler was like that," he says.
But Mahler's experiences were not Musto's. That is clear when, during a break in the Steinway basement rehearsal, this hard-working and serious composer gets a devilish look on his face as he playfully plays the theme from the old "Batman" TV series.
Only in New York.
The choir’s [Chanticleer’s] most demanding workout came in two excerpts from American composer John Musto’s 2001 Five Motets —songs of almost transcendent difficulty which layer complex sonorities and stretch the range of choral writing in compositions simply unconceivable for any other ensemble. - The Vancouver Sun
August 11, 2006
KATONAH,N.Y.-Lightning struck the stages of Caramoor several times this summer, and much of it was due to the music of John Musto (b. 1952), Composer-in-Residence this year. In heralding the penultimate concert of the season, General Director Michael Barrett graciously thanked all who helped create the excitement. Last Friday’s final installment of Extreme Chamber Music featured compositions and performances by Musto in the intimate Spanish Courtyard.
The program opened with Musto’s “The Book of Uncommon Prayer,” based on the collection of poems by Katherine Mosby. This poetic mosaic of 15 songs provides reflections of the human spirit, framed around the work of Mosby and several other poets.
Performing his own composition on piano, Musto accompanied the vocal quartet that included his wife, Amy Burton, soprano, Theodora Hanslowe, mezzo-soprano, Steven Tharp, tenor, and Philip Cutlip, baritone. Fortunately, the enunciation was beautiful, enabling an appreciation of some wonderful writing.
Burton was particularly poignant in her solo rendering of Tess Gallagher’s “I Stop Writing the Poem,” on the passing of her husband, minimalist author Raymond Carver. Gallagher’s poem has a simple clarity that rises above the cloudy Olympic Peninsula in Washington where they were living. Tharp’s solo in “Old Photograph” by Archibald MacLeish depicted another couple dealing with being at a distance.
Cats seem to hold a warm place in Mosby’s heart, as all four vocalists combined in a round, mimicking mating cats in “Let Sing the Bedsprings.” Cutlip sounded like a hep cat in the cool “San Jose Symphony Reception” by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Hanslowe created a somber mournful mood in “Words To Be Spoken” by MacLeish. But everybody bounced back with some black graveyard humor in “Some Final Words” by Mark Strand.
Throughout all of the songs, Musto’s piano accompaniment held everyone together, using music to infuse another dimension to the sensitive poetry that explored a wide range of emotional territory.
Following the intermission, Musto admitted that the last year has been quite a ride, and thanked Susan and Elihu Rose for making it possible. Then he put his own fingerprints on “French Suite No. 5 in G Major” by the great granddaddy of counterpoint, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Musto seemed relaxed as he performed this comfort music with delicately nuanced flourishes, humbly hesitant, almost holding back in the heavenly Sarabande. Giving the Gigue a fresh feeling with accents aplenty, Musto demonstrated that he is extremely capable on the keyboards.
Anybody who might have been wondering what extreme chamber music was all about found out fast in Musto’s “Sextet for Clarinet, Strings and Piano.” The performers from the Copland House Ensemble included Michael Boriskin, piano, Derek Bermel, clarinet, Nicholas Kitchen, violin, Wilhelmina Smith cello, and guest artists Jesse Mills, violin, and Danielle Farina viola.
The driving Allegro giusto had the sextet chasing each other around the block a few times, with responses and variations to the theme. In the Tranquillo, somnambulant strings were met with the lethargic clarinet and piano echoing each other until the tempo picked up in a bluesy riff with stocatto transitions, and a clarinet solo, floating and stinging into the extreme registers. The Vivace followed without pause, in a forceful passage with a zippy klezmer clarinet and some nice cello work. Actually, all the strings held together remarkably well in the palsied pulsating rhythm, ending quite abruptly.
From pensive to pyrotechnic, Musto’s music is anything but predictable. Maybe we’ll get lucky and lightning will strike again.
His grandly jazzy Passacaglia for large orchestra (2003) sounds like Bach rediscovered by Krazy Kat. His Five Piano Rags (1995) cast the smoky nonchalance of Scott Joplin in a Rachmaninoff glow. His opera Volpone, which had an acclaimed premiere at the Wolf Trap Festival last March, employs everything from Broadway to bel canto in a ferociously clever musical adaptation of Ben Jonson’s play. Like Bernstein, Mr. Musto is not afraid to entertain…
I’ve heard Mr. Musto in concert, and I don’t know of any full-time composer today who plays the piano with greater panache. - The New York Observer
“If there is a finer composer of song with piano alive and working today, I would very much like to know his or her name.” - Graham Johnson
Musto's Triolet and Litany revel in the freedom which is one characteristic of American music, the freedom to be conservative or radical or anything else, but above all to be one's self. - The Times [London]
Excellent piano playing…Mr. Musto’s pianism was exquisite and exploratory. - The New York Times
…an extraordinarily gifted pianist. - The New Yorker