John Musto                      Composer/Pianist


FANFARE Magazine       

Issue 33:1                                 September/October  2009    

Viva Sweet Love.1,3  Nude at the Piano. 1,3  Witness. 1,3 Flamenco. 1,3  Quiet Songs. 2,3  Enough Rope: Résumé, 2,3 Social Note. 2,3  Penelope: Penelope’s Song. 2,3 Triolet. 2,3 The Old Gray Couple.1-4

Patrick Mason (bar);1  Amy Burton (sop);2 John Musto (pno);3  Michael Barrett (pn)4   Bridge 9286 (58:29 &)

MUSTO  Later the Same Evening   Michael Barrett, cond; Jaclyn Bermudez (Elaine); Spencer Dorn (Gus); Margaret Peterson (Estelle); Blake Friedman (Jimmy); Mia Won Shin (Ruth); Dan Kempson (Mr. Cabral); Rogelio Peãverde (Sheldon); Meredith Mecum (Rose); Carla Jablosnki (Thelma): Lindsay Rider (Valentina); Zach Altman (Joe); Manhattan School of Music Op Theater ALBANY TROY 1109 (69:59 &)

Many view John Musto (b. 1954) as the successor to Ned Rorem, the most consistently successful composer of American art song – not that Rorem is going away yet!  In fact, many singers I know think he’s even better.  And I’m not here to dispute it.  Musto is the real thing, a quite flawless musician, with superb chops and lyric instincts.  He’s sophisticated as hell and can write a great tune.            

     I’ve received for simultaneous review two discs that highlight the composer’s versatility.   The first is a song recital with Musto as accompanist.  It includes equally distributed songs for baritone and soprano, with Viva Sweet Love and Quiet Songs being cycles for the two voices, respectively.  Musto has a gift for taking familiar tropes and somehow imbuing them with new life.  This may have to do with the fact that his taste for popular American music tends toward the first half of the 20th century, where the distance allows for more latitude in reinterpretation.  Blues, jazz, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway all are evoked at one time or another.  But there isn’t dripping irony here, the way there is in much postmodern music.  Musto’s voice is neither sentimental or pandering;  his approach to older languages is full of respect, yet not deferential.  He finds fresh things in familiar sounds.  It’s clear-eyed, or maybe better, clear-eared.  Thus the chords of the very first song of Viva Sweet Love , “as is the sea marvelous,” sounds bluesy, but they’re chords you really haven’t heard before in this context.  The same goes for the Gershwinesque sway of “Penelope’s Song,” which I’m still humming.  The Quiet Songs tend to project a purer lyricism, in the spirit of Copland and Bernstein, above all in the eponymous third song.  And lest you think the composer only does “classic American tonal,” then we get Nude at the Piano, a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking song, whose harmony is in full Bergian chromaticism, and yet is also a perfectly convincing torch song in the cabaret tradition.

     I could cite many other examples from any one of these songs, but it would become repetitious and actually detract from their seamless quality.  Both Mason, and Burton (the latter is Musto’s muse and life partner) project these songs ideally, with stunningly clear diction and intonation.  Musto is a dynamite accompanist.

     Later the Same Evening shows off Musto’s strengths in a different light.  Many vocal composers aren’t equally adept at the intimate demands of the art song, and the theatrical ones of opera.  Musto, at least in this work (the only opera of his I so far know, though his Volpone seems to have been a hit), shows he can cover the field.  The opera has an unusual provenance – a show of Edward Hopper paintings at Washington’s National Gallery occasioned a commission to accompany the exhibition.  The librettist is Mark Campbell, the same lyricist as for Nude at the Piano.  It’s one of the best librettos I’ve heard in years: touching, witty, funny.  The conceit is that we eavesdrop on the “real” lives of characters from a series of Hopper paintings.  As it turns out, they’re all going to a Broadway show the same evening.  We watch their domestic anxieties and crises play out, until they (or almost all of them) reach the theater, where they settle into viewing the musical.  A series of tender encounters occur, and there are several resolutions of the relational dilemmas from the piece’s opening.

     The actual “show” is played out without words, a musical dumb show in fast forward that’s a brilliant evocation of classic Broadway from the 1930s.  While watching, the Virginia schoolteacher Jimmy has an epiphany that this city life must become his own, a soliloquy that’s a love poem to New York.  Gus, having left his loveless marriage to Elaine to take refuge in a bar, arrives late, desperate from having come realize how much she means to him.  His confession of terror at losing her is heartrending, and even more affecting is the way she takes him back, pulls him from the precipice.  These are only a couple of the wonderful encounters and revelations that make up the piece.

     While I might single out a couple of singers (in particular, Blake Friedman’s incarnation of Jimmy’s ecstatic yearning for a better life), frankly, this whole young cast does superbly.  I’ve noted that Albany is releasing a series of conservatory recordings of American operas, and it’s a winning project: a benefit to the young performers, the companies, the composers, and the American lyric stage.

     I know this may seem like a mash note to the composer.  I don’t know him, though we’ve met once in passing, and share a vocal recital on another disc – though I have only one song and he a cycle, which is as it should be!  But I feel strongly here precisely because my own tastes tend to be towards music that “reinvents the world,” that pushes boundaries, and engages in a lively debate, even argument with tradition.  As such, I should be skeptical of Musto’s language and aesthetic.  Yes, he is different, far more comfortable with tradition, but he’s not complacent.  There are a number of composers currently who write music that aims to please audiences through its familiarity with the repertoire.  But it’s not really about communication, it feels more like market research (or maybe a report of what other music the composer likes).  In contrast, what I like about Musto’s music is that it is profoundly humanistic.  It respects texts, characters, wants not just to be accessible to audiences, but also to reach in and touch them, to take them into an empathic identification with others.  That’s a noble cause.

     Both these discs are knockouts, and make a great double portrait of the composer.  The opera in particular seems a candidate for my Want List.    Robert Carl

STRINGS Magazine       August 2009                                                                                                                            

Music from Copland House, a mixed string and wind ensemble, takes its name from Aaron Copland’s New York home, now a center for American music, where this chamber ensemble is in residence. Its members, all acclaimed soloists and chamber musicians, often invite distinguished guests. The resulting mix offers a wide range of instrumental combinations. Continuing Copland’s championing of American composers, the ensemble has commissioned, performed, and recorded many new works. This disc features three world-premiere recordings.

The music on this disc is composed by John Musto (b. 1954), a brilliant, versatile pianist who considers himself a “self-taught” composer, having “learned to write music by playing it.” He has written prolifically for piano and for voice; the singing quality of his chamber music clearly shows the vocal influence. These works, though quite different from one another, share two important elements: contrast and color (as well as a tendency to end movements with a crash or a whisper). Tempo, rhythm, texture, dynamics, and character change constantly, often suddenly—the timbre of every instrument is fully used, individually and in combination. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Musto had decided not to leave a single sound effect unexploited, and the players abet him with gleeful enjoyment.

In the Piano Trio (1998), banging chords alternate with soaring melodies, big climaxes with fade-outs. High, delicate piano tinkling combines with low-singing strings and piano staccato with pizzicato, creating unusual, piquant textures. The performance by three of the guests is excellent.

The Sextet (2000) for string quartet, clarinet, and piano was inspired by clarinetist David Krakauer, a leading exponent of both classical and klezmer styles. In his prominent part, clarinetist Derek Bermel, himself a composer, displays a natural affinity for Jewish folk songs and dances as well as dazzling brilliance in several improvised cadenzas.

The Divertimento (1999), scored for flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano, and percussion, offers every player a chance to shine. Among the members, violinist Nicholas Kitchen (leader of the Borromeo Quartet), cellist Wilhelmina Smith of the Mannes Trio, flutist and conductor Paul Lustig Dunkel, and pianist Michael Boriskin (who also wrote the program notes) stand out for their virtuosity.

The Chamber Music of John Musto—Music from Copland House. Nicholas Kitchen, violin; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Derek Bermel, clarinet; Michael Boriskin, piano; Paul Lustig Dunkel, flute. Guest artists: Jesse Mills, violin; Daniella Farina and Leslie Tomkins, violas; Thomas Kraines and James Wilson, cellos; James Baker, percussion. (KOCH 7690)       Edith Eisler