NEW YORK — When it comes to opening-night jitters, few tales can top Matthew Aucoin’s debut conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
It was February of last year, and Aucoin, a conducting apprentice with the orchestra, had been tapped to fill in for the legendary French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.
The program called for challenging works by Stravinsky and Ravel. To lessen the audience’s disappointment at Boulez’s absence, it also included a massive video projection overhead, through which the towering maestro held forth on the works, introducing them to the audience.
“It was like Big Brother,” said Aucoin, who led the musicians in three concerts. “Is there any more intimidating image for a young conductor to literally be making your Chicago Symphony debut, and there’s a giant video of Pierre Boulez looming over you?”
But if Aucoin was nervous, he didn’t let it show.
“He’s a natural conductor,” said Baird Dodge, the orchestra’s principal second violinist, who played a portion of the concert. “Instead of spending all this time seeing if you could get the airplane up in flight — no, you were flying.”
Still boyish at 25 with a mop of brown hair, the Medfield native is quickly making a name for himself in classical music’s upper echelons as a rare triple-threat. In addition to his conducting duties in Chicago, where he serves as the Solti Conducting Apprentice, he has also worked as an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
A skilled pianist as well, he holds his own with symphony-level musicians, having shared the stage with members of the Chicago Symphony and Metropolitan Opera performers.
But Aucoin’s foremost passion is composing. At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, he serves as the composer-in-residence, and he has been named to an early-career musician residency at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., next year.
At present, he has commissions from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Carnegie Hall, among others, for new works to be performed next season. And over the past few years, he’s had theatrical works commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, which later this month will premiere “Crossing,” his opera based on Walt Whitman’s Civil War diaries.
“He seems to be kind of a young force of nature,” said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. “Suddenly, everywhere I looked I found him.”
These days, however, Aucoin can be found in one place: an Upper West Side rehearsal studio, where he’s carefully rehearsing the New York-based cast through “Crossing,” his first professionally produced opera.
“Writing an opera is kind of like killing a hydra,” said Aucoin, who wrote the music and the libretto, and will also conduct. “Every time you think it’s done, six more heads sprout out.”
Of course, some of those heads were of Aucoin’s own making. When he wrote “Crossing,” which explores Whitman’s experiences while working at a hospital during the Civil War, he conceived it as an ensemble piece, with Whitman wandering, Dante-like, through a purgatorial landscape, populated by soldiers from across the ages.
The work received positive feedback during a workshop last year. But Aucoin wasn’t satisfied.
“Over the course of writing the first draft, I’d actually found myself as a composer,” he said. “It goes back to being honest about your material: I found that you can’t put Walt Whitman in a Samuel Beckett play.”
In the months that followed, Aucoin scrapped huge sections of the original work, which he calls “the stupidest and best decision I’ve ever made.” He “ruthlessly murdered” several smaller characters, focusing instead on an ambivalent love story between Whitman and one of the soldiers.
“That’s actually really radical for an opera composer” said Diane Paulus, who is directing “Crossing” for the ART. “Normally that doesn’t happen, because operas are so intricately devised.”
Aucoin talks about his opera ‘Crossing’
The son of Globe theater critic Don Aucoin (who does not cover the ART) and his wife, Carol, Matthew came to music early — “I was totally that insufferable classical kid” — playing from memory Mozart’s entire opera “The Marriage of Figaro” at the piano when he was 11, and presenting his first symphonic work during a semiprofessional concert at the Rivers School Conservatory when he was 9.
There, when the conductor gestured for him to stand at the end of the concert, the young Aucoin had to climb on a chair for the audience to see him. “Everyone just gasped,” recalled his father.
Aucoin briefly stepped away from classical music during high school, joining a rock band with friends, and exploring jazz. But symphonic music soon beckoned him back.
“I wish we didn’t have to call it ‘classical music.’ Because it’s not the classics — it’s new,” he said. “I do think that it is a radical subculture in our world right now.”
Still, to be so young, traveling often, and working in the esoteric realm of new classical music has occasionally affected his social life. “There have been a couple of times when it’s been like, ‘OK. That was a fun OKCupid date. Are you free in like, six months?’ ” he said, sipping an iced chai latte after rehearsal. “What are you going to do? It sucks!’ ”
Aucoin majored in English at Harvard, where he studied with Jorie Graham and served as the poetry editor for the school’s undergraduate literary journal, The Advocate. Poetry was the only thing that ever posed a serious challenge to music. “I did have a moment of thinking, ‘Wow, I could be just as happy doing this.’ ”
But music never released its grasp, and Aucoin spent his spare time in college playing with other musicians, conducting, and composing musical works of his own, including an opera based on the poet Hart Crane. Produced in 2012 during his senior year, the opera caught the attention not only of Paulus, but also of the famed soprano Renée Fleming, whose daughter was in the production.
“I was immensely impressed,” said Fleming, who brought Aucoin to the attention of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “His ability to synthesize all the varied elements in an opera were marvelous for anyone, but almost shockingly developed for someone his age.”
Aucoin had had a similar stroke of good fortune only a few months earlier, while conducting Harvard’s Dunster House Opera in a student production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Since the production was mounted in one of the school’s dining halls, cast and crew had to replace the furniture following each performance.
As Aucoin, sweaty from the show, pushed a table back into place one evening, he started talking to an orchestra member’s mother. “She says, ‘I really think you should be working at the Met,’ ” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, lady — me, too.’ And she’s like, ‘No. I work there. I think you should go audition. I’m going to set something up.’ ”
Within weeks, Aucoin was in New York to audition for the company’s young artists training program, a “torture audition” for which he had to play an entire act of an opera on the piano, sing all of the parts, and coach other singers.
By the end of the audition, the Met didn’t want Aucoin to join the training program; they wanted to hire him, making Aucoin, at 21, the youngest assistant conductor in the company’s history.
“He’s obviously remarkably gifted — he’s too old to be a child prodigy, but it seems to be an extension of what he was as a child prodigy,” said Gelb.
Meanwhile, Aucoin was also studying composition at Juilliard, and Paul Cremo, the Met’s dramaturg, said that word about Aucoin’s work as a composer was getting out. Aucoin was already in discussion with the ART when Cremo visited Juilliard to hear some of his poetry settings.
“The pieces were really beautiful and remarkable and very mature,” said Cremo, who directs the Met’s Opera Commissioning Program. “He had his own sort of distinctive sound. I also found that they were sort of accessible emotionally and musically.”
Like Whitman, however, Aucoin contains multitudes. His work is still evolving, and he says that “Crossing,” which he began writing at 22, isn’t necessarily representative of his work today.
“One part of me is saying, this is so you two years ago, you’re so beyond all this musically,” he said. “But the much stronger feeling is sheer joy at watching the piece walk around on its own two feet.”
Composing, Aucoin explained, is like “making a map” of the night sky. He’s finding hidden stars and charting constellations. He’ll sense that a certain note, or a certain chord wants to land at a precise place in the score.
“But you’re not quite sure how to get there,” he said. “If I put down a single note on the piano, for me there’s only one possible note that can follow it, and it’s up to me to be completely honest about how to move forward.”
In “Crossing,” Aucoin said, he was fascinated by the larger-than-life figure of Whitman and the questions the poet’s life and persona raise about unconditional love, the worth of art, and how we retain our individuality during a time of mass atrocity.
“He’d love to say, ‘I’m a saint. I’m the spirit of goodness,’ ” said Aucoin. But there’s another way to look at it: “You’re a middle-aged gay man who’s never settled down, and just at the moment you were beginning to be established as a literary figure, you run away and become anonymous,” he said. “You form superficial relationships to avoid having to make any deep commitments.”
Aucoin added that, although Whitman was one of his favorite poets, the line in his work between the exultant and execrable is “really thin.”
“I kind of only think Whitman has like six good poems,” he said, referring to the poet’s substantial works. “I think most of Whitman is catastrophically bad.”
Nevertheless, strains of Whitman filled the warm spring air recently as the composer worked with the baritone Rod Gilfry and tenor Alexander Lewis at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center. The singers were working their way through the difficult score, a work by turns shimmering and resounding, marked by constantly shifting time signatures.
“Let’s play the occasional chord, but mostly pitches,” said Aucoin, dressed in a black T-shirt and using a pencil as a baton. “That way if you’re up there on stage and the orchestra is flipping out, quasi-tonally in the pit, you’ll have each other to hang on to.”
Gilfry, in a Madras shirt emblazoned with various cocktails, fired back: “My grip will tighten, brother.”
Surrounded by prop hospital beds, period bottles, photographs, books, and crutches, the performers had been at it for an hour. The wall behind Aucoin displayed pictures of Whitman, mock-ups of the set, and period costumes.
Meanwhile, Aucoin homed in on the moment Lewis’s character, Whitman’s would-be love interest, John Wormley, first deceives the poet. “You’re formally singing a lie that’s almost sickly sweet. Sell it,” he said, sitting straight up on a backless stool.
As Lewis ran through the passage again, a smile began to spread across Aucoin’s face as the music in the air began to align with the constellations in his head — rich star maps that have the classical music world buzzing, drawing comparisons with many of the form’s titans.
With so much attention being lavished on him, that buzz threatens to become deafening — a distraction he’s trying hard to avoid.
“I don’t trust the hype or believe the hype,” Aucoin said, noting that most composers don’t do their best work until later in life. “I feel like, ‘Thanks for the interest, but now please wait and see if the music’s good, because it’ll take some time.’ ”
Presented by American Repertory Theater
At: Citi Shubert Theatre, May 29-June 6.
617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgMalcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.