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At 22, Matthew Aucoin is a composer with composure

Matthew Aucoin has been recently commissioned to write an opera for The National Civil War Project.
Matthew Aucoin has been recently commissioned to write an opera for The National Civil War Project.Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

In theory, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master an endeavor. If that’s so, at the tender age of 22, Matthew Aucoin appears to have spent every waking minute honing his craft as a composer and conductor.

Having worked alongside the highly regarded British composer Thomas Ades as assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, the 2012 summa cum laude Harvard graduate has packed a wealth of experience under his 28-inch belt. For the past two summers, he served as assistant conductor at Italy’s Spoleto Festival. He has studied at Tanglewood Music Center, the Rome Opera, and the Juilliard School. An accomplished poet, he worked with Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham to curate Harvard’s 375th anniversary poetry celebration in 2012. As a teenager he won an award for solo piano performance at the Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival at Lincoln Center.


Now comes perhaps his biggest breakthrough yet: The American Repertory Theater announced Thursday that Aucoin has been commissioned to write an opera as part of the company’s participation in the National Civil War Project, an undertaking by several universities and performing arts organizations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

“I treat everything I do as one activity,” Aucoin said recently. “That’s what draws me to opera — it’s anti-specialization. The modern music world often seems as specialized as car assembly.”

Aucoin, son of Globe drama critic Don Aucoin (who does not cover the ART), grew up in a house stuffed with books and records. He credits his enthusiasm for classical music and opera to an early introduction, followed by a self-imposed period of discovery during which he turned toward a different course of inquiry.

“I started studying young but got jaded rather early,” he explained, sitting against the brick wall in the loft space at his favorite Harvard Square cafe on a recent trip home for meetings at the ART. (He’s living in Manhattan, in the uptown neighborhood of Washington Heights — “kind of the Brooklyn of classical music,” as he puts it.)


Though he began taking piano lessons and performing in recitals while very young, by the age of 11, he felt turned off: “I found the atmosphere depressing and arid.” So he veered off, exploring jazz and experimental rock music. With friends from public school in Medfield and the Charles River Creative Arts summer camp, he started an indie band, Elephantom, when he was 14. They still play together when they can.

A year later, Aucoin found himself drawn back to classical music by chance. “There was an old recording of Verdi’s ‘Otello’ lying around, and I felt a magnetic pull,” said the engaging, curly-haired young man, drumming his knuckles on the tabletop between sips of latte. “I was hooked again. I’d spent enough time away to know how much I wanted it.”

In retrospect, his time away from classical training was a healthy hiatus: Aucoin now recognizes that he brings a kind of “jazz mind-set” to classical music that fuels his intense curiosity and his desire to create.

Jorie Graham, who advised Aucoin on his college senior thesis — a collection of poems called “Aftermusic” that won Harvard’s Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarly work — said she once asked him to describe how music came to him when he was composing. “He described the speed of it, and a sensation of heat in his head,” she recalled in an e-mail. Though he has a photographic memory and “really gets tone of voice,” poetry came less immediately to him than music: “He was impatient with it at times. But also so incredibly disciplined when it came to revision. . . . I have rarely seen anyone more determined.”


While still at Harvard, Aucoin composed his own opera, “Hart Crane,” and premiered it on the main stage at the Loeb Drama Center with an orchestra of 100 students. When he had discovered the late poet’s work as a teenager, “I had the feeling he was trying to make poetry blast off into music,” he said. “He goes for musical effect, at the border of meaning and sound. . . . I wanted to create music that speaks as clearly as a great poem does.”

The premiere attracted the attention of Diane Paulus, the ART’s artistic director. “It was immediately apparent that he is a true talent, an extremely promising composer and poet,” she said in an e-mail. Soon she was discussing the Civil War project with him.

Aucoin, who counts the band Radiohead alongside Berlioz among his favorite artists, pointed out that his generation’s reliance on headphones creates an underappreciated obstacle for live orchestra: “If you’re listening to [the band] Animal Collective on headphones, you hear every sonic detail. I totally understand why the cheap seats in an opera house might be a pale experience by comparison.” Hearing Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in an underwhelming venue can “feel like you’re looking at a Monet from 500 yards away,” he said.


Recently named composer in residence at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, he will conduct a concert including a premiere of his own work in the museum’s atrium in May. The audience will sit among the performers: “We want to show people what it feels like to sit in the fire,” he said.

In October, Aucoin will make his debut with the Rome Opera Orchestra, conducting a program featuring pieces by Copland and Debussy. This past December and January, he served there as assistant conductor for rehearsals of a performance of Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose.”

“That was a wild piece, with singers from probably 20 different countries, so there was simply no common language,” he said. “It was like boot camp — eight hours a day.”

Aucoin met Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company, at the Spoleto Festival on an earlier stay in Italy. Initially expecting to observe, he was pressed into service when the production needed a pianist.

“I was told, ‘Be merciful with him,’ ” recalled Debus, on the phone from Toronto. “But he played as if it’d been weeks or months — just incredible.

“You meet him and realize immediately what a great talent — smart, alert, curious — he is,” said Debus, who has kept up a running conversation with the prodigy by e-mail. “He expresses the most profound, deep things. It’s really a pleasure to communicate with him.”


Despite Aucoin’s apparently bottomless capacity for work (“Oftentimes I felt my job was to make sure he got some sleep,” joked Graham), he puts considerable energy into maintaining a wide range of friendships. One of his pals from Harvard is Megan Amram, who is currently writing for the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.”

Matthew Aucoin at the Rome Opera, where he served as assistant conductor for rehearsals of a performance of Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose.”
Matthew Aucoin at the Rome Opera, where he served as assistant conductor for rehearsals of a performance of Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose.”

“He has such a brilliant mind for creating and explaining and understanding words,” she said in an e-mail. “He knows how to break a human experience down into its most vital and electric parts through language, which makes for very compelling music. He just inherently knows how to define his world through art.”

For all Aucoin’s gifts, one of the most apparent is his modesty. He remains awed by the opportunities he’s been given. Most recently he has served as assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, working on its production of “The Tempest” by his “favorite living composer,” Thomas Ades, who was himself once touted as a phenom.

The notoriously press-shy
Ades, 42, is “a wonderful guy, a calming presence,” said Aucoin. “He’s like an atomic scientist — he takes microscopic particles of music and creates cosmoses. I was happy to learn by watching.”

For the ART commission, Aucoin is rooting his work in the prose recollections of Walt Whitman, who worked as a nurse in military hospitals during the Civil War. “That got me thinking about the war hospital as a really dynamic space, kind of a purgatory or limbo,” he said. “Everyone there was unsure whether they’d return to this life. Everyone had something to share — memories they needed to unburden themselves of. I think Whitman thought of himself as a memory gatherer.”

The piece began to take shape on long walks while he was in Rome.

“It’s like lava at this point,” he said. “Who knows how it’ll cool?”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter