Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: The Music of Augusta Read Thomas

07/17/2017 01:52 pm ET

Augusta Read Thomas is one of the most accomplished composers of the American mid-career group. She has been prodigiously prolific for the past thirty years or so of her professional life, including many works for orchestra. In this regard, she was the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1997-2006, and during her tenure wrote nine commissioned works.

Her music is light and effervescent, expressing a panoply of intricate shadings. Even at its most rhythmic, the music is always supple and probing. Her music engages and continues the tradition, as it is an extension of the French/Russian world of Debussy and Stravinsky and her primary teacher Jacob Druckman.

All of her strengths are displayed in a new release by the Utah Symphony that includes her work EOS (Goddess of the Dawn), a Ballet for Orchestra, which is in seven movements all written and played without break. Titles are evocative, starting with Dawn and then tracking the day.

Dawn enters with a slow sustained note very much like Lontano of Ligeti. The crescendo is less long, finally bringing in gesturally rich flute figures. Gestural here means the figure is quasi-improvisatory and thus its rhythms are fluid, sounding out of metered time. And as befits the time of day, instruments gradually appear as the world awakens, and the course of the movement is that of getting most of the orchestra playing and finally hitting some repeated 8th note motion as the day gets to chugging along. This movement segues into Daybright and Firebright, which is more episodic. It throws a single line around the orchestra with punctuations in a bravura-like manner with occasional pauses to catch its breath. The third movement, Shimmering, does just that with lots of sustained high notes and tinkling percussion. Dreams is like the beginning, with languid materials in the flute and clarinet but now accompanied by a harp playing rising arpeggios. A slow, almost ponderous cello line breaks in and continues to the end of the movement paired with gossamer long-tones in the winds. Spring Rain is dappled and splotched, and is formed of quickly changing stabs of color. The rhythm, like rain, is episodic, as it rushes forward then hesitates or stops. Golden Chariot takes over, and it is even more hectic and rambunctious, but very much a continuation of the previous, with the rhythm frenetic and of one layer. Sunlight concludes with bright long tones that are occasionally quickly reiterated, and ends in a tonal, lustrous, and fiery blaze.

Thomas’s music is, above all, colorful. Her bright dazzling colors transform over time, so that we are drawn into their metamorphosis. Harmonic fields are at play that seem vaguely tonal and frequently emphasize unisons and perfect intervals, the major third, and the major seventh. In an impressionistic way, fast and scintillating solo winds are often accompanied by slow moving strings. The tessitura favors the higher ranges, keeping most of the music light and fleet. The orchestration features high percussion instruments—glockenspiel, crotales, vibraphones, and the like—adding to the high glistening and polished quality of sound. The larger structure is simple, clear, and elegant. Individual movements vary widely in duration, which creates a delightful sense of playfulness with music’s primordial medium—time.

This is music that is always in motion, as if coming perpetually out of a magician’s hat. It leads but doesn’t direct, and is playful and subtle, dancing on light feet. It is music that conjures. The work is played beautifully and powerfully by the Utah Symphony and its music director Thierry Fischer, who commissioned the work. This is a fine and mature composition with which to begin to get to know this superb composer, and I suggest you pick it up pronto as it is not to be missed.

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