Most 4-year-olds going to visit their grandparents in Florida while away the flight kicking the seat in front of them. Matt Aucoin spent the trip composing “Cloud Symphony.”
His scribbled notes for the short classical piece were hard to decipher but the music—his first composition—sounded the same every time he played it on the piano. “It was lovely. A little ethereal,” his mother, Carol Iaciofano Aucoin, recalls.
The wiry tyke with greenish-gold eyes went on to bang out Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a toy piano at age 6; two years later, after the first performance of one of his orchestral works, he took his bow perched atop a chair. At age 11, he played “The Marriage of Figaro” from start to finish by heart, leading strangers to assume he was sitting at a player piano. Around the same time, he wrote his first opera based on the magical animals in a children’s book.
A precocious youngster, Matt drew attention in his Massachusetts town for his musical gifts. A 1999 profile said the 9-year-old composer ‘discusses his craft with enthusiasm and makes it seem simple.’THE METROWEST DAILY NEWS, 1999
Now 24, Matthew Aucoin (oh-COIN) has become one of the most sought-after young voices in classical music. He also is one of the most ambitious, setting himself the goal of transforming opera into something other than musical spinach for a new generation. He is as close as the art form comes to a triple threat, racking up accomplishments as a composer, conductor and pianist. In the past year, he has received commissions from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and signed on to develop new works for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Renée Fleming, one of the world’s leading sopranos, says Mr. Aucoin’s low-key personality helps him work with musicians often more than twice his age. “He’s not afraid to assume that he should be and can be working with the very best people in the business,” she says. “Frankly, he leads with his talent.”
As a composer, Mr. Aucoin twists familiar harmonies and sounds with elements of jazz and other complex rhythms. His opera librettos feature allusions to mythology, religion and history woven around the passions of larger-than-life characters. Singers who have worked with Mr. Aucoin say he crafts arias that read like poetry but also attends to technical details like placing a line’s longest note on its most beautiful vowel.
Last year, Mr. Aucoin conducted a concert at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. He is the museum’s first composer-in-residence.JOHN ANDREWS/PEM
Mr. Aucoin recently made his conducting debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Rome Opera’s orchestra and the Juilliard Opera. He is the youngest member of the Met’s team of assistant conductors and has conducted rehearsals for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel. In those sessions, he meets with the maestros to discuss complex sections of the music and later debriefs them about the practice. His orchestral and chamber compositions are performed in the U.S. and Europe. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., made him its first composer-in-residence.
He grew up in Massachusetts, where he went to public school, played keyboard in a rock band and studied poetry at Harvard. His father is a journalist and his mother works as a technical writer; neither were ever professional musicians. As a teenager, he abandoned classical music for a number of years before rediscovering it in college with the same awe he had had as a boy. “I probably resemble myself at age 9 more now than I did anytime in between,” Mr. Aucoin says. “I care enough about it that I’m not going to let the stuffiness of the culture get in the way, because classical music is actually one of the freest, wildest art forms I know.”
Today’s best-known “indie classical” artists borrow from pop culture, pursue eclectic careers and play up their eccentricities on social media. That’s not quite the profile Mr. Aucoin cuts. The skinny vegetarian who keeps a notepad in his knapsack for moments of inspiration boasts no bad-boy tattoos and curses only to emphasize how great something is.
During a recent interview at a Greenwich Village café, he didn’t stumble over his thoughts or lard them with “umms” and “you knows.” Instead he pivoted easily between highflying ideas and sensitive asides. Discussing the atonal music of 20th-century classical composers, he began: “Let me put it this way, when Einstein came out with the theory of relativity he freaked a lot of people out—he said there’s no center. Composers did an equivalent thing with the first atonal music, because when you write atonally you essentially do to music what he did to physics.”
Mr. Aucoin describes his ‘Poem for Violin’ as ‘a duet for sound and silence: the violin’s line is set in counterpoint to a ‘line’ of poetry.’ This performance, from March, features violinist Keir GoGwilt. Credit: Peabody Essex Museum
While composing, Mr. Aucoin experiences a sensation of burning that he says can’t be extinguished until he transcribes the musical notes. “He said that he heard no a priori melody or theme—just this great heat in his head,” Jorie Graham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who taught Mr. Aucoin at Harvard, wrote in an email. “He discovered the music as it was written down.”
The composer described it like this: “I’m not a woman and I’m never going to be pregnant, but the only thing that I can say is that it feels like something wants to get born—it’s a thing that doesn’t exist yet that nudges you to make it.” He says the physical act of touching the piano keys—”the vibrations, the physical pressure”—helps him address what the music needs rather than writing simply what pleases him.
Mr. Aucoin says opera is a tough sell, particularly to young people. Opera companies aren’t helping matters by promoting some productions like daytime soaps, he says, playing up the romance and lust while glossing over what makes the art form challenging and original. “It’s not normal, it’s weird, it’s larger than life, it’s the world of myth and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about that because opera can do that better than any other art form,” he says.
Mr. Aucoin wrote two operas while at Harvard. “From Sandover,” a one act inspired by an epic poem of James Merrill, tells the story of a gay couple and the inhuman voices that talk to them through a Ouija board. His second work, “Hart Crane,” is a full-length piece about the tragic life of a gay poet. He recently completed “Crossing” for the American Repertory Theater, inspired by Walt Whitman’s diaries during his stint as a nurse in the Civil War. He is working on a fourth opera, a children’s tale for the Lyric that he describes as a “reverse Garden of Eden story.”
Composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin is just 24-years old and already he has been dubbed “a modern-day Mozart” and “the next Leonard Bernstein.” Mr. Aucoin joins Lunch Break and tells Lee Hawkins what’s next for the music phenom. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Mr. Aucoin chafes at some of opera’s traditions, calling it “in-SANE” that performers at the highest levels don’t always have a full command of the languages they’re singing. That could leave some performers worrying more about pronunciation than the meaning of the words.
“If you’re only being told what you’re doing wrong at every stage, you sort of have this cautious attitude to your own art that puts you in shackles,” he says. Perhaps singers should perform operas in a single foreign language that they have fully mastered, he suggests, or maybe American and British singers ought to just stick to English.
Mr. Aucoin, who took French in high school and picked up German and Italian studying librettos, only writes operas in English. He is inspired by works like “Dr. Atomic,” the 2005 opera by John Adams in which the title character, J. Robert Oppenheimer, sings a John Donne poem during a moment of crisis. Mr. Aucoin thinks a higher language like poetry feels appropriate for the setting, adding: “You’d probably laugh if he were singing, ‘What have I done! This bomb could explode! Right now! And kill everyone in Tennes-SEEEEE!'”
Mr. Aucoin’s career started right after college. At Harvard, where he took up conducting, a Met administrator whose son played in the university’s orchestra saw him conduct a student production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” The administrator suggested that Mr. Aucoin try out for a Met Opera training program for young artists. At the audition, he was asked to play a Wagner opera on the piano and sing all the parts. After listening for a few minutes, the judges told Mr. Aucoin to forget the school. He was hired, becoming one of the Met’s 43 assistant conductors. The workload, which varies according to the production being mounted, involves conducting rehearsals with the cast, coaching singers on difficult passages and helping interpret the libretto.
“He’s someone I expect to have a relationship with at the Met long into the future,” says Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager. “He comes from a new generation of composers who are not afraid to engage the audience. Composers more and more realize if they want their works to be performed, they have to think about the interests of the audience.”
Though Mr. Aucoin studied composition for a year at Juilliard with American composer Robert Beaser and is participating in a two-year conducting apprenticeship at the Chicago Symphony, some still caution that such training could get lost as his career takes off.
Federico Cortese, one of Mr. Aucoin’s advisers, says he finds himself playing “the grumpy old uncle” to his former student’s ingénue, worrying about potential missteps.
Mr. Cortese, a conductor who directs the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and the Boston Youth Symphony, says Mr. Aucoin “has really rather extraordinary potential and I would hate to see him exploited, chewed and not actually appreciated and helped as he deserves.” He has faith in the composer’s judgment but thinks young talents like Mr. Aucoin should enter the professional spotlight at a more deliberate pace. “If you make two mistakes, there’s no shortage of people who will say bad things about you. The more things you take onto your plate, the higher the risk that some of them may not come out right. ”
Mr. Aucoin’s parents focused on his artistic development from the start. His mother, an amateur pianist who now works for Cisco Systems Inc., gave her son his first lessons at around age 5. She remembers how quickly he grasped the concepts of octaves and middle C, saw patterns and memorized melodies. Mr. Aucoin spent hours at the piano, “a happy little composer,” as he puts it.
Mr. Aucoin, at the piano, with mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert earlier this year.TODD ROSENBERG
After the tot was transfixed by Bolivian street musicians playing pan pipes and drums in Harvard Square, his mother took him to hear the group on trips into Cambridge. When Matt became fascinated by churches, his father, Don Aucoin, drove him around Boston so he could sketch them.
By 6 he was taking weekly piano lessons, though he often preferred improvising at the keyboard to practicing. “The piano was a box of crayons,” he says. His father, then a statehouse reporter for the Boston Globe, recalls that the first song his son played was the theme from “Gilligan’s Island.” It was an odd choice for a child who was a ferocious reader and bored by TV. By around age 11, Matt had turned the “Redwall” children’s fantasy books into his first opera, writing arias for a literary universe filled with good and evil mice, otters, hedgehogs, foxes, weasels and other critters.
Along the way he was playing Little League—memorizing sports statistics and insisting his Dad play with him even on raw February days. His parents say Matt’s childhood was normal—complete with a pet gerbil named MacGyver and a stint on the student council—and add that they resisted using the term prodigy even as others did. Ms. Aucoin declines to reveal her son’s IQ, though when pressed she says he likely qualifies for Mensa. (Mensa, a society of bright people, requires members to score in the 98th percentile of certain standardized intelligence tests.)
As Mr. Aucoin grew up, things turned serious. The piano moved from the living room to the basement as he played into the early hours of the morning. When he wanted to compose, he would kick his father off his exercise bike so he could write without anyone seeing him. “You’re wandering around humming to yourself,” he says. “You’re just so focused, you just want solitude.”
When not composing, he delved into opera soundtracks and videos, his interest sparked by an early visit to a music store with his parents when he randomly picked out a CD of “The Marriage of Figaro.” He began testing himself, reading librettos of works he hadn’t yet heard and then composing his own scores—an exercise in the methods of the composers he revered.
At recitals, his parents were judicious with praise: “It wouldn’t just be, ‘Oh, fantastic, great job again,'” Ms. Aucoin says. “It would be, ‘I really love the way you played that particular passage’ or ‘How did you feel about this other passage you did?'”
In adolescence, Matt took a breather from classical music for several years. At the time, he played keyboards and sang in a rock band, Elephantom.CHRIS BERGENHEIM
Around sixth grade, when Matt stopped seeming emotionally invested in the piano and his performances lost some technical sharpness, the Aucoins switched to a more demanding piano teacher at the Rivers School Conservatory about a half-hour away in Weston, Mass. The new instructor, Sharon Schoffmann, recalls the parents’ instructions when Matt arrived in her studio: “They said, ‘Make him work hard. Don’t let him get off easy.'”
That worked for a while but by adolescence, classical music began to feel like a yoke. “The word ‘symphony’ plagued him a little bit,” says Nick Pope, a friend since childhood. Matt kept up the lessons but the music he performed in public changed. By his teens, he was wearing classic rock T-shirts and playing in a band called Elephantom. He had a Mohawk for about four days. He wrote about heartbreak.
In college, he took up poetry seriously for the first time. He could memorize 20-page poems, and twice nabbed a Harvard oratory award once won by a young Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was “adamant” that he become a better writer, according to his teacher, Ms. Graham. Mr. Aucoin’s poems often examined “the desire to be seen, or perhaps rather heard, for what you truly are,” she recalled. By his 2012 graduation, he had won several of the university’s top literature prizes. “He learned a great deal about his creative process, and his instincts as an artist, from working on poems,” Ms. Graham says.
For the composer, poetry’s allure lay partly in how different the writing universe is from the prodigy culture of music. “I love that in poetry there’s no cult of youth, there’s no obsession with super young poets,” he says. “There’s no Suzuki kid of writing, thank God, and I just found it so refreshing.”
At the same time, he was diving back into classical music, which he felt was his artistic home. After a series of composing feats at Harvard, including creating a string-orchestra piece in three days, word about his talents began to spread. “There was a buzz on the campus here that he was the next Leonard Bernstein,” says Diane Paulus, the Tony award-winning director who teaches at the university.
In the spring of his senior year, he debuted “Hart Crane.” Ms. Paulus, who had been in the audience, approached him some time later about writing a Civil War opera for the American Repertory Theater, where she is artistic director. Within a few months, he gave her song studies for an opera with Walt Whitman in a Civil War hospital turned into Purgatory. He got the job.
Not long ago, Ms. Paulus watched as he performed the entire score for her, flying through scribbled notes on composition paper at the piano and scrolling through music written so recently on his laptop he hadn’t yet printed it. “It was the classic mad composer,” she says.
“Hart Crane” also caught the attention of Ms. Fleming, whose daughter, a student at Harvard at the time, performed in the piece. Ms. Fleming eventually introduced Mr. Aucoin to Anthony Freud, general director of the Lyric Opera, which commissioned him to write a children’s opera to be performed at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago next year. Mr. Aucoin says he is writing a story set in a dystopian future where a monkey hands two children a piece of real fruit, forbidden in their synthetic world.
A childhood visit to a music store triggered a love of opera. Mr. Aucoin recently paid a visit to House of Oldies Rare Records in New York’s Greenwich Village.AXEL DUPEUX FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Rod Gilfry, a baritone who will play Walt Whitman in the A.R.T. opera, recalls working on a 2012 Met production of “The Tempest,” with Mr. Aucoin playing the notoriously complex score on piano in rehearsals. “He made no mistakes,” Mr. Gilfry says. “We were all like, ‘Whaaat? How old is this guy?'”
Inevitably, Mr. Aucoin sometimes collides with the gray-haired world he is trying to shake up. In February, he recalls, he was summoned to Chicago to stand in as conductor for 89-year-old French maestro Pierre Boulez, who had withdrawn for health reasons. As a consolation for the audience, the Chicago Symphony set up a video screen on which a giant Mr. Boulez discussed the evening’s program of Stravinsky and Ravel. He literally hovered over Mr. Aucoin’s head between pieces, rattling the young conductor. “It was like, no pressure,” Mr. Aucoin says. Eventually, though, the old master faded to black and Mr. Aucoin raised his arms to the musicians, ready to start.
Corrections & Amplifications
Matthew Aucoin has conducted performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he has conducted rehearsals of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti. (July 22, 2014)