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.”
“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?”