LA Opera artist-in-residence Matthew Aucoin leads a comprehensive journey through the master’s catalogue
By Bliss Bowen
Composer. Conductor. Musician. Poet. Matthew Aucoin, who isn’t yet 30, inhabits all those roles with sufficient preternatural ease that the Boston Globe, NPR, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have depicted him as a rising visionary in the classical realm. Peers and opera leaders have glowingly likened him to a young Leonard Bernstein.
Confident yet grounded onstage, Aucoin (pronounced “oh-KOIN”) is articulate and limber of thought in conversation, and laughs easily. The Massachusetts native, who recently settled in Pasadena with his partner, has conducted several U.S. orchestras and composed a handful of operas, including 2015’s warmly reviewed “Crossing,” inspired by Walt Whitman’s Civil War-era diaries. Last year he was named LA Opera’s artist-in-residence — a wide-ranging position created for him.
“The job’s openness matches the variety of things that I do, between composing and conducting,” he says of his LAO post. That includes working closely with about half a dozen singers in LAO’s Domingo Colburn Stein Young Artist program, whom he will conduct in “Mozart: Truth Through Beauty” on Sunday at the Santa Monica Public Library. The afternoon concert, which will conclude a five-date recital tour across greater Los Angeles, also features a string quartet comprised of LAO orchestra musicians and a pianist.
“It’s an all-Mozart program spanning his whole musical output — all the way through the Requiem, which he wrote on his deathbed,” Aucoin explains, referencing the “crazy virtuosity” of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s earliest operatic efforts and the simplicity he pursued in later works.
“Musical challenges that would destroy most of us always came easily to him. … But what I think he realized the ultimate challenge is, is to create a large-scale piece of music that is satisfying not just for its spectacular effect, but because of the wholeness and the rightness of the form. …
“In ‘The Magic Flute’ you see the influence of Masonic thinking; Mozart was a Freemason, and it was a kind of religion for him. He was very taken with the ideals of universal brotherhood that the Freemasons offered. I find it so touching, because Mozart, in spite of being celebrated and having quite a busy social life, you wonder if he felt lonely just because of the demands that his own gifts made on him.”
Aucoin, who composed his first proper piece at age 4, was attracting attention from local press as a prodigy by his teens. But he demurs when asked if his experiences granted him insight into the precocious Austrian composer, who was all of 35 when he died in 1791.
“I wouldn’t want to exaggerate my own status,” he says. “I feel lucky that I’m able to live a life in music, and that I can support myself that way.”
Aucoin initially pushed classical music aside after joining his high school’s jazz band and noticing other students playing jazz and forming their own rock bands “because they wanted to jam” — unlike many kids in the classical world who were pushed into being overachievers by hyper-ambitious parents. His own parents, a reporter and a technical writer, nurtured his talents gently.
“It struck me as a much more natural way to express what I wanted to express musically,” he recalls. “At heart, I’m a composer. I live to make music — to write my own. What’s really kind of shameful about the way classical music is taught in America today is that all too often kids are taught just to execute the so-called great music of the past, without being nurtured to write music of their own. Whereas in jazz, of course, the act of playing music and the act of composing music is the same act! You’re taught to improvise from day one.”
When he returned to classical music while majoring in English at Harvard, Aucoin started applying jazz improvisation’s spirit of think-on-your-feet exploration to his compositions. At that point, poetry was the only challenge to music as a “potential life path”: “I probably spent more time reading and writing poems than I spent writing music,” he says.
At Harvard he studied with poet Jorie Graham, who helped him see how he employed musical technique in his poems.
“Poetry is part music, of course; the sound of the words, the rhythm of language, the kind of associations that the sounds spark in your mind. Any poet has to have a musical sensibility as well as a visual one and a linguistic one. But I think I was using my musical side so heavily that the poems kept risking turning into pure music,” he says. “Jorie certainly encouraged me to make a go for it as a musician at a moment when I was not sure if that was possible. Also, the technique she teaches involved a kind of openness to the poem that wants to get written through you, rather than the poem that you sat down wanting to write. That as a spiritual principle has been important to me, and it certainly informed my compositional process.”
Aucoin’s utilized his insights when exploring Mozart’s text “as great Italian and German poetry” with the artists he’ll conduct Sunday. But a schedule crammed with LAO duties, composing and conducting commissions leaves little time for writing poetry.
“I would love to organize my thoughts about music into some kind of book-shaped object at some point,” he says, although there’s no timetable for that either. Right now, Mozart beckons.
Aucoin conducts “Mozart: Truth Through Beauty” at Santa Monica Public Library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium (601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica) from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 28. Free . Call (310) 458-8600 or visit matthewaucoin.com.