By Matthew Guerrieri, BOSTON GLOBE CORRESPONDENT  (6/2016)

DUBLIN, N.H. — Summer music camps, combining focused isolation and self-contained richness, channel something of Henry David Thoreau’s joy in realizing that his Walden retreat “was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers . . . a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.” The Walden School, founded in 1972, lets interlopers sample that spirit with an excellent — and free — concert series on its campus here. On Sunday, the day after some 50 students arrived for the school’s Young Musicians Program, New York-based pianist Blair McMillen welcomed them with a program that was mostly new and appropriately cosmic.

It was both showcase and homecoming for McMillen, a one-time member of the school’s resident ensemble. The repertoire played to his robust technique: coruscating, muscular, forging notes and flourishes on the keyboard’s anvil — qualities already on full display in the opener, a pair of preludes by Claude Debussy (“Le cathédrale engloutie” and “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest”), rendered with an impasto of accents and athleticism.

Three miniatures by David Rakowski (“Toyed Together” — a left hand-right-hand duet for piano and toy piano — “Extended Puppy” and “Absofunkinlutely”) exemplified that composer’s rampant imagination, ideas and riffs aggressively growing, mutating, overrunning a stretch of time like invasive species. “Medieval Induction” and “Defensive Chili,” a pair of etudes by Marc Mellits, were musically leaner, but of a similar cast, tag-teaming bright, driving, and boisterous versions of relentlessness. Nico Muhly’s “A Hudson Cycle” was, on the surface, an outlier, gently pealing fogged-glass harmonies, but there was a disquiet here, too, the loping 3-against-2 rhythms constantly jump-cutting out of regularity.

It was all extended prelude to the compendium/divination/be-in that is volume two of George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos.” The 12-piece suite, written in 1973 and unabashedly redolent of its era, encompasses just about everything one can do with or to a piano: faux-medieval austerity, fierce modernist firepower, the performer attacking the keys, vocalizing, stopping and strumming the strings. Titles refer to gods and gurus, destruction and transcendence. 

In less committed hands, it might be a recipe for retro-preciousness. But McMillen’s playing vouchsafed the score’s quality and drama. His conviction gave the work’s far-out details urgent immediacy, while bringing out each movement’s rhythmic and structural spine, such that Crumb’s bag of extended-technique tricks felt like an orchestral resource.

“Makrokosmos” is a heavy statement, but the combination of performance and setting brought to mind nothing so much as the distant flute that, in one of Thoreau’s fables, calls a farmer to grander conceptions. “Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?” Thoreau writes. “Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.” The Walden School aims — and gazes — high. 

‘Goldberg’ Variations Galore for New Music’s Torchbearer

By Anthony Tommasini, New York Times (4/2008)

The pianist Blair McMillen can play composers like Liszt, Debussy and Scriabin with flair, intelligence and Juilliard-honed virtuosity, as his self-produced 2004 recording “Soundings” makes abundantly clear. But what most excites this 36-year-old North Carolina native is contemporary music. He is best known as a mainstay of several contemporary music ensembles in New York.

Yet even for a musician who champions new works, Mr. McMillen, in his recital on Wednesday night at Casa Italiana at Columbia University, was adventurous. As part of a series, “Music for the New Century,” sponsored by the university’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Mr. McMillen played an entire program of works composed since 2000. Well, to be precise, Marco Stroppa’s “Passacaglia Canonica,” a study in staggered motion and multifaceted harmony, was written in 1991, then revised in 2002. Otherwise, the works by Steven Stucky, Barbara White, Joan Tower and others dated from the 21st century.

Mainstream concertgoers who assume that a recital of recent works must be a daunting listening experience should have been there. The Casa Italiana, an ornately decorated salon that can comfortably accommodate an audience of a couple of hundred, is an ideally intimate hall. Wearing an informal shirt and plain slacks, the youthful and somewhat shy Mr. McMillen set a pensive mood for his 70-minute program by opening with Mr. Stucky’s “Album Leaves,” a 10-minute suite of four movements.

“Contemplativo,” the first, played with delicate colorings and rhapsodic expressivity, sounds like Ravel, ingeniously updated — a succession of rolled chords with pungent out-of-focus harmonies. A melodic line pierces the milky textures but keeps getting stuck in place. The second movement is abuzz with swirling cyclic riffs. The crystalline Messiaen-like colors of the third movement lead to the finale, in which brutal chords are contained within a scampering Presto, dispatched with crackling vigor and crunchy tone by Mr. McMillen.

He was equally commanding in three excerpts from Ms. White’s engaging “Reliquary.” The first one played, “Sin,” could have been the fractured shards of a stride piano piece. “Mirage” was an overt homage to Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes,” all the more entrancing because the composer dares to be so close to her source, rightly confident that her ear is strong enough to make the piece original.

Mr. McMillen’s elegant performance of the theme of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations made you want to hear him play the entire work. Here the theme introduced four pieces from “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg,” a collective work in which a dozen composers wrote new variations on Bach’s iconic theme. Though Stanley Walden’s “Fantasy Variation,” Fred Hersch’s “Melancholy Minuet” and Mischa Zupko’s “Ghost Variation” were inventive in various ways, I especially enjoyed Derek Bermel’s “Kontraphunktus,” in which one small embellished segment of Bach’s theme is spun into a meter-smashing, obsessive musical reflection.

Ms. Tower’s two-part piece “Vast Antique Cubes/Throbbing Still” plays with whole tone scales, neo-primitive riffs, Stravinsky-like percussive rhythms and oscillating, arm-blurring chord passages. Though dramatic, volatile and virtuosic, the music seemed a little transparent. Still, when played by the formidable Mr. McMillen, any piece sounds terrific.