When Matthew Aucoin began his two-year Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprenticeship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013, his duties were relatively low-key and behind the scenes. Besides leading some concerts with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Aucoin was expected to observe rehearsals and serve as a back-up or cover conductor, with little expectation that he would actually get to substitute with the CSO.
But in February 2014, he was among a group of young conductors asked to fill in for conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez, who had to cancel due to illness. “Aucoin, the CSO’s Solti Conducting Apprentice, looks substantially younger than even his 24 years,” wrote critic Lawrence A. Johnson in the Chicago Classical Review. “Yet he showed a sure style with Stravinsky’s challenging idiom, directing the chamber forces in personality-plus performances of the Eight Instrumental Preludes and Concertino that brought out the vitality, lyricism and humor of these rarely heard works.”
Aucoin will make his first return to CSO since his apprenticeship when he leads two concerts April 29 as part of the orchestra’s Family Matinee Series. Featured on the program will be the Magic Circle Mime Company. “Of course, returning to the CSO after having learned so much from the orchestra as an apprentice is one of the most special things imaginable,” he said.
Following Franz von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture, the featured work will be Sergei Prokofiev’s ever-popular Peter and the Wolf (1936). In this piece, which Prokofiev called a “symphonic fairy tale for children,” each character in the story is represented by a different instrument, giving children a whimsical introduction to the orchestra.
“I think it’s a good program for a young conductor,” said Aucoin, who was born in 1990. “It’s a relatively light, sparkling and tasty program. The first piece shows off the power and depth of the CSO brass. And the second, Peter and the Wolf, shows off the sophistication and virtuosity of the CSO woodwinds as soloists, which is not something that every orchestra can brag about — the extent to which the principal players really are soloists.”
Conducting is just one of facet of the supremely multitalented Aucoin, who is also a composer, writer and pianist. Indeed, a headline on a long profile in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 asked: “Is Matthew Aucoin the next Leonard Bernstein?” It was a question that caused him to react with a “huge groan.” “Is it possible to be simultaneously flattered and scornful?” he said of the article. “I was flattered that someone would want to write it, but I really didn’t like the tone.
“I have the feeling that anyone who would make the comparison doesn’t actually know either my music, which doesn’t sound like Leonard Bernstein’s in any conceivable way, or my priorities. So I tune it out as best I can.”
Bernstein and Esa Pekka-Salonen, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a regular CSO guest conductor, are among the famous musical figures who have balanced composing and conducting with varying degrees of success. “As deep as my admiration is for both of those artists, on the compositional side, they both represent cautionary tales for me,” Aucoin said. “Bernstein, because he could clearly have written the great American opera or whatever he wanted to write, but he never left himself the time. I think he had a different personality than me. He really needed people all the time. I feel like I need space and quiet to get inside of my own head. And Esa-Pekka, whose music is so impressive that I wished he devoted more time to it earlier on.”
The most important decision that Aucoin has made so far in his artistic life is choosing to be a composer first and foremost. “The bizarre thing is that having made that internal decision a couple of years ago,” he said, “conducting instantly became 10 times more pleasurable, because it felt like this cathartic, physical relief in relation the work I view as most essential to myself, which is the composing of music.” He now limits himself to one or two conducting engagements a month, making sure to work with only artists and ensembles that he respects. He calls his work as a pianist and writer “even more secondary.”
As a composer, he wants to write as much non-operatic as operatic music. Indeed, his most recent major composition was a piano concerto commissioned by the Gilmore Foundation. It received its premiere in October by Conor Hanick and the Alabama Symphony.
But Aucoin remains best known for his work in opera, a form that ideally marries his interests in words and music. He wrote two operas while a student at Harvard College, where he graduated in 2012 before going on to earn a graduate diploma in composition from the Juilliard School a year later. “So I’ve always felt very much at home setting text and working with singers,” he said. “I think frankly, the reason that I won the Solti Apprenticeship at the CSO has as much to do with my working with singers as it did with my conducting technique at that time.”
In 2014-15, Aucoin conducted the premieres of two of his new operas: Crossing at Boston’s American Repertory Theater and Second Nature, an eco-themed work commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago through its Lyric Unlimited program. “One of the most in-demand composers of his generation,” wrote critic John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune, “Aucoin knows how to put together operas that performers are grateful to perform but don’t talk down musically to the listener. Second Nature was my first encounter with his freely tonal musical idiom, and I found the score absorbing and inventive, with its suggestions of Debussy here, neo-classical Stravinsky there, but all of it very much Aucoin’s own.”
The composer is currently at work on a new opera for the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works program. Aucoin recently moved to Los Angeles, where he has a three-year appointment as artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Opera. “I’m very grateful that they were willing to create a position that is as bizarre and many-limbed as I am as a musician,” he said.
Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and chief executive officer, came to Boston to attend Crossing. Afterward the two had discussions about how Aucoin could be involved with the Los Angeles Opera, and what emerged was this position, which calls on the composer-conductor to write a full-length opera for the company, lead one production a season and take part in late-night cabaret events and educational outreach activities.
“The position did not require me to move to LA,” he said, “but after I spent a few months cumulatively in L.A., I fell in love with the atmosphere and the sense that composers are essential to the city’s musical lifeblood.”