Thursday March 5th, 2015 - The Miller Theatre's ever-enlightening series of Composer Portraits continued tonight with Augusta Read Thomas the central figure. The composer, a native of Glen Cove, New York, was interviewed and four of her works were performed, including two world premieres.
The weather all day had been wretched, with the usual announcements of problems from the MTA. I wondered if I would make it to the concert at all. But around 5:00 the snow tapered off, and it was nice to get out in the brisk air. I arrived at the Miller to find a good crowd had gathered, anxious for the consolation of music during this bleak Winter.
The programme spanned a 15-year compositional time frame. It opened with the world premiere of Capricci (2014), a dialogue for violin and viola played by the JACK Quartet's Ari Streisfeld (violin) and John Pickford Richards (viola). Facing one another, the players 'conversed' in a quirky language: jagged slashes, jittery plucks, sustained notes, and spaced-out harmonies. The music had the ebb and flow of spoken words, with the players sometimes finishing one another's sentences.
The other members of the JACK (violinist Christopher Otto and cellist Kevin McFarland) then joined their colleagues for Invocations from Sun Threads (1999) which - though written earlier - seemed almost a development of Capricci. The quartet, in a single movement, combines some of the starker elements of the duet but now suffused with lyrical sound elements. The music has an oddly indefinable feeling of suspense about it.
Third Coast Percussion joined the JACK Quartet for the world premiere of Selene; this double quartet is a Miller Theatre co-commission. Named for the mythical goddess of the moon, this intriguing merging of sound worlds was rich in textures and pulsing rhythmic patterns.
Marimba, vibraphone and xylophone add their resonances to the mix, while a high shimmer of the violin basks above. This leads into a mellow adagio for the strings, with the marimba providing an under-glow. Chimes sound, and then we are off to a flickering scherzo; the strings pluck and spike, eventually settling into a sustained tone with a collage of bells. A subtle, ironic passage follows and a motif of high pulsations. A slow string chorale is invaded by the percussionists and then flits on to a rather rambling passage before the music vanishes into a long, high fade-away. The audience reaction was massively favorable: the musicians re-called, and the composer joining them onstage.
After Selene, I was remarking to my companion how the percussionists seemed to be dancing to their own choreography throughout the piece; dance was in fact a theme of the post-intermission interview in which percussionist David Skidmore spoke with Augusta Read Thomas about her compositional vision and her quest for sonic detail.
This was followed by Resounding Earth, the composer's miraculous 'symphony of bells' being given its New York premiere tonight. During the interview, Ms. Thomas had spoken of her long love for the sound of bells, crafted from the metals of the Earth. Her four-part work - each movement paying homage to 20th-century composers (from Stravinsky to Lou Harrison) whose work expanded the use of percussion - employs a huge number of bells of all kinds, and she crafts their individual sounds into waves of resonance from thunderous to whispered.
She had spoken of the 'decay' of sound after a bell has been struck; in Resounding Earth the overlay of fresh strikes over fading echoes gives the music an endless vibrancy. The musicians, at their most dancer-like here as they moved quickly from one set of bells to another, showed complete mastery of their craft and dedication to the composer's vision.
For me the most intriguing of the movements was the second, Prayer, in which the four players stood around a table on which twenty-six Tibetan bowls had been placed. By alternately striking or rubbing the bowls, miraculous overtones develop as reverberations fade away under the freshness of a new note.
Throughout the work, the composer's detailed instructions of how each individual bell was to be struck - and with what kind of mallet - was strictly observed by the players. The cumulative effect of this ritualistic piece was transportive and dreamlike: we are entranced as by the very music of the spheres.
- Selene for percussion quartet and string quartet (2014-15) world premiere, Miller Theatre Co-Commission
- Capricci for violin and viola (2014) world premiere
- Resounding Earth (2012) New York premiere
- "Invocations" from Sun Threads for string quartet