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.Continued...