augusta read

Composer Augusta Read Thomas, University of Chicago Professor of Composition in the Department of Music. 

Although Hyde Park is several miles from the Loop, Chicago’s city center, it is one of our metropolitan area’s premier locations of classical music. This is in large measure due to the University of Chicago, which offers a wide range of high-quality musical performances, from world-class professionals to student ensembles. But many groups have no official University connection yet maintain a long-standing connection to our neighborhood. Both the Chicago Ensemble and the Newberry Consort have concerts coming up in Hyde Park this weekend, and both groups have deep roots here on the South Side.

One of the ways the University of Chicago contributes to the classical music ecosystem is one of the most basic: it provides a source of new classical composition. One way it does this is via commissions. Another way (sometimes directly related) is that it provides the composers. UChicago has long been a home to vibrant composers and now one of those composers has a new CD of music that has some direct links to Hyde Park. Overall, though, it’s a creative statement that stands strong and independent of where the composer works.

Since 2010 Augusta Read Thomas has been University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music. She was the longest-serving Mead Composer in Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, appointed by Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, holding the position from 1997 to 2006.

Her contributions to music are extensive, with one of her most recent successes being the creation of the Grossman Ensemble on campus. This group of professional musicians holds regular concerts of world premieres that are specifically commissioned for the Grossman Ensemble.

Earlier Nimbus Records released this month a new CD of Thomas’s work. “Bell Illuminations” is described by Nimbus as the composer’s “first album to be centred around this longstanding preoccupation” with bells. (The CD is published by a British organization, and thus they centre things where we Yanks would merely center them.)

U. of C. fans will take delight in a piece written for the university’s carillon, the world’s second largest musical instrument. (The largest being a carillon in New York City.) The title is even U. of C.-related, as it is a play on the institution’s Latin motto. “Crescat Scientia; Vita Excolatur” is described as “for carillon of 72 bells, four players—eight hands and two feet.” It is performed by University of Chicago carillonneur Joey Brink along with Joseph Min, Emily Kim, and Joao Francisco Shida.

The carillon is an interesting musical instrument for many reasons, but for listeners it is the bell overtones which give the music a very different feel from the sound of strings, for example. I have often struggled to appreciate carillon music precisely because the overtones tend to make the music sound strangely out of tune. Yet Thomas has created a spirited work that immediately charmed me. There are treble bells offering a kind of insistent greeting that gather you in and then a celebration commences. This work has all the joy and excitement of a simple, happy afternoon drenched in sun and surrounded by family. It is a wonderful contribution to the music of the elusive carillon.

“Upon Wings of Words” for soprano and string quartet takes for its inspiration poetry by Emily Dickinson. Performed by soprano Kristina Bachrach, Brian Hong and Benjamin Baker (violins), Jordan Bak (viola), and Alexander Hersh (cello), this is an uplifting work that offers sly musical treatment of intriguing text. Bachrach sings with a luminous quality suited to Dickinson’s taut text, and the strings are particularly powerful in their popping staccato moments as well as long, lithe lines that cushion the voice.

There are two works on the CD for solo percussionists, both performed by John Corkhill, a member of the Grossman Ensemble. Corkhill performed both the works on this CD last year in a Sound/Sites concert at the fascinating Mansueto Library on the University of Chicago campus.

“Bebop Riddle” for solo marimba has engaging rhythms and Corkhill is superb at letting the instrument whisper as well as shout. He lets the music unfold naturally, sometimes ruminating on an interesting chord, other times permitting a controlled yet racing passage gather steam. The music has jazzy antecedents as well as a mysterious setting, making the title apt as well as interesting.

For “Enchanted Invocation” Corkhill creates an even more mysterious mood, this time on the vibraphone. The music is very slow and yet has a pull to it. There are long notes that seem to hum for an unusually long time, adding to the enchanting effect.

“Ring Out Wild Bells to the Sky” for solo soprano, chorus, and orchestra is given a splendid performance by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, conducted by Norman Scribner with Carmen Pelton as soprano soloist. Bell sounds from the orchestra as well as long, bell-like notes from the chorus join together beautifully. It has the power of a fanfare, the charm of a joyous choir, and the zing of a work that gathers large orchestra forces for a focused musical purpose.

Pelton has a gentleness of tone that gives the music energy and purpose. The chorus has good blend, and Scribner combines all his musical forces with considerable care, all to excellent effect.

The final work on the CD is the biggest. “Sonorous Earth” (clocking in at over 30 minutes) is scored for “bells from around the world (four players) and orchestra”. It is performed in this recording by Third Coast Percussion, and the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck.

Thomas engages in various sounds created by metal and merges them marvelously into orchestral sounds that have been standard for centuries. It is music that melds traditional technique with new sounds and ideas. It is exciting to hear how she combines percussion and brass sounds, as well as percussion and winds. The sections that rely entirely on percussion are fascinating in themselves, at times almost like windup birds, at other times far more factory mechanical. And then the mechanical sounds evolve and become individual forces on their own.

This is an imaginative collection of music and all the more powerful that it captures so many sides of what might otherwise be called a simple bell-like tone.

“Bell Illuminations” by Augusta Read Thomas, released April 1, 2022, by Nimbus Records, NI.6427.

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