Review: Augusta Read Thomas’ New Release Captures the Breadth of Her Musical Palette with a Regular Dose of Sunshine

Chicago-based composer Augusta Read Thomas has issued a new release comprised of several recent compositions. Bell Illuminations has a wide variety of ensemble configurations and illustrates the breadth of her compositional reach. Tying it all together is Thomas’ overall sunny disposition. It’s very easy for composers to use atonal settings to scream at creation. Thomas’ music, mixing tonality and atonality, is hopeful and inspiring.

Included in the new release are recordings of two excellent concerts covered in Third Coast Review, the world premieres of the percussion concerto Sonorous Earth and a work for soprano and string quartet, Upon Wings of Words. Composed for Third Coast Percussion, Sonorous Earth uses 300 bells collected from around the world. Thomas wrote for the same 300 bells in Resounding Earth, a percussion quartet written for TCP. Sonorous Earth is a whole new composition where she added a full orchestra. The wonderful world premiere concert in 2017 paired TCP with the Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Speck.

Augusta Read Thomas. Photo by Anthony Barlich.

For Upon Wings of Words, Thomas adapted a quintet for oboe and strings to create a quintet for soprano and strings. The soprano mimics the sounds of the oboe with the poetry of Emily Dickenson. Bell Illuminations includes the world premiere performance at Guarneri Hall from earlier this year. Soprano Kristina Bachrach joined a string quartet made up of violinist Brian Hong and cellist Alexander Hersch from the Nexus Chamber Music and violist Jordan Bak and violinist Benjamin Baker.

Another piece on this release is Ring Out the Wild Bells to the Wild Sky, which sets the words from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” to music for soprano, chorus, and orchestra. The recording from 1999 has Norman Scribner conducting the Choral Arts Society of Washington, DC, with soprano Carmen Pelton. Using a lovely aural panoply, Thomas set the words of Sections 106 and 9 of “In Memoriam.” Among other things, this text says:

…Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
…Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
…Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

These hopeful passages are typical of Thomas’ music. It’s very nice to hear in these challenging times.

Augusta Read Thomas shows her scores. Photo by Anthony Barlich.

Bell Illuminations opens with Crescat Scienta; Vita Excolatur, a work for a 72-bell carillon played by 4 players’ eight hands and two feet. This live concert recording features Joey Brink, Joseph Min, Emily Kim, and João Francisco Shida. Carillon bells are different from plucked strings or blown winds because they do not have the same overtone patterns. This works well with Thomas’ aural instincts, and she has written several pieces for carillon.

For those interested in exploring contemporary music, Bell Illuminations by Augusta Read Thomas is an excellent way to start. It is on the Nimbus Records label.

Thomas is the founder and current director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago, where she is also a University Professor in Composition. She was once the Composer in Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This upcoming weekend, the CSO will be performing Thomas’ Brio in a program also includes Kirill Gerstein performing Robert Schumann’s a-minor piano concerto and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. For ticket information, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.