01 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Augusta Read Thomas – SELECTED WORKS FOR ORCHESTRA (Nimbus Alliance NI 6258)

Augusta Read Thomas - SELECTED WORKS FOR ORCHESTRA (Nimbus Alliance NI 6258)

AUGUSTA READ THOMAS (b. 1964): Aureole, Carillon Sky, Words of the Sea, Terpsichore’s Dream, In My Sky at Twilight, Silver Chants the LitaniesChristine Brandes, soprano; Baird Dodge, violin; Gregory Hustis, horn; DePaul University Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra, Southern Methodist University Meadows Wind Ensemble; Cliff Colnot, Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, and Jack Delaney, conductors [Various recording dates and venues; Nimbus Alliance NI 6258; 1CD, 79:50; Available from Nimbus, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

One of the great conundrums for a composer of contemporary Classical Music is the challenge of connecting with 21st-Century audiences in ways that are memorable for the right reasons. The fictionalized Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus advises the frustrated Mozart that success as a composer is determined by ending pieces in suitably rousing fashion that alerts audiences to the proper timing of applause. This ‘advice’ was a tongue-in-cheek representation of the playwright’s depiction of the Italian composer’s envy of Mozart’s genius, of course, but the circumstances of the success of a new work might seem similarly fickle to a modern composer. In an environment in which resources are barely sufficient to sustain performances of standard repertory works, new compositions face almost crippling odds. Perhaps advances in technology and social media lessen the disadvantages faced by 21st-Century composers in today’s reality of increasing ignorance and decreasing appreciation of music history and theory, but the endeavor to unite new compositions with knowledgeable, receptive audiences remains as critical—and as necessary—now as at any moment in the distant past.

Taking her place in the lineage extending from Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi via Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, and Alma Mahler to Thea Musgrave and Judith Weir, contemporary American composer Augusta Read Thomas thankfully faces fewer obstacles created solely by her sex than plagued women composers of previous generations. Still, to pretend—or to hope—that prejudice has been eradicated in Classical Music is simply dishonest and overtly insulting to artists like Ms. Thomas. Though considerable progress has been made in recent years, true equality for women artists remains elusive. In 2014, only a handful of women regularly conduct important orchestras, and almost none of the world's major choral ensembles, orchestras, or opera companies are headed by women. The six works by Ms. Thomas on this disc, a wonder of which is the consistency of the superb, ideally-balanced sonics of the recordings despite the various venues and provenances, make the paucity of women among today's prominent composers seem all the more regrettable. Whatever difficulties impede perfect application of the cliché to global justice, Music surely should be blind. Fortuitously, the friends of music at Nimbus Alliance are not deaf to the exceptional quality of Ms. Thomas’s compositions. The label’s commitment to documenting this fascinating composer’s artistic journey is a gift given to very few contemporary composers, but the music of very few contemporary composers justifies the confidence that Ms. Thomas’s inspires. First-rate music deserves first-rate performances, and these are what this disc preserves.

Completed in 2013, Aureole receives from the DePaul University Symphony Orchestra and conductor Cliff Colnot a performance that revels in the exuberant sonoroties of the music. Benefitting from the admirably sure intonation of the Orchestra's players, the fanfare-like figurations at the piece's opening are broadly but rousingly phrased, providing an apt introduction to the generally high spirits of the music that follows. When darker harmonies invade, momentum is maintained both by Maestro Colnot and by the Orchestra, but neither the pace of the performance nor the jocularity of the atmosphere that the music conjures seems forced. Maestro Colnot also conducts the performance of Terpsichore's Dream (2007) by members of the Chicago Symphony. Here, too, Maestro Colnot displays an affinity for Ms. Thomas's music, applying a firm hand to ​​his manipulation of the musical fragments that Ms. Thomas combines to create an alluring mosaic depicting the mythological muse of dance. The musicality of the playing of the chamber orchestra is impeccable, and the rhythmic vitality of the performance lends grace and endearing luminosity to Ms. Thomas's balletic writing. The plangent trombone lines are especially beautifully done, and the combination of celesta, harp, and glockenspiel produces sensually ethereal sounds.

Recorded in concert, the account of Words of the Sea (1995) by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bustles with the virtuosity and commitment expected from this great orchestra. A celebrated composer in his own right, Pierre Boulez devotes to Ms. Thomas's music the same attention and insightful management of musical textures that made his Wagner performances memorable. There is something of the grandeur of Der fliegende Holländer in Words of the Sea, and Maestro Boulez penetrates the depths of each of the work's four unified but stylistically divergent movements, especially the fourth and final, an homage to Debussy depicting 'mountainous atmospheres of sky and sea.' The spirit of the Debussy of La mer lurks in Ms. Thomas's music, to be sure, but there are also occasional hints of Britten, Tippett, and even Messiaen in the ways in which she advances thematic ideas through subtle distortions of harmonies. Maestro Boulez’s talent for insightfully managing the interplay of textures among individual instruments and sections of the orchestra is given a prominent outing in Words of the Sea, Ms. Thomas’s musical structures providing plentiful opportunities for Impressionistic tone-painting.

Structured similarly to Baroque motets and cantatas, In My Sky at Twilight (2002) pairs a soprano soloist with chamber ensemble. Soprano Christine Brandes here enjoys the support of the Chicago Symphony's MusicNOW Ensemble. Maestro Boulez again presides at the podium, but his concentration and identification with Ms. Thomas’s compositional style, though still impressive, are not as palpable as in Words of the Sea. Set in two movements separated by an interlude, In My Sky at Twilight makes use of an uncommonly diversified text. The first movement, 'Deeper than all Roses,' incorporates excerpts from poems by Ono no Komachi, Robert Browning, Gustave Flaubert, Kshetrayya, Sappho, e.e. cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and W. S. Merwin, as well as ancient Egyptian love poetry, and 'Lament,' the work’s second movement, offers verses by Christina Rossetti, Pindar, Pablo Neruda, Bayard Taylor, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Lady Kasa. The integrity of Ms. Thomas’s desire to forge from these poetic strands a cogent text is apparent, but the goal is only partially realized: ultimately, the impact of the music is lessened by the lack of continuity in the text. There are moments in the generally capably-wrought vocal lines in which Ms. Brandes is not entirely comfortable, her intonation faltering slightly at the apexes of climactic phrases, but she is irreproachably musical and is never overwhelmed by the orchestra. This is strenuous music, but Ms. Brandes and Maestro Boulez cooperate in a performance that illustrates the suavity of Ms. Thomas’s compositional strength.

The performance of Carillon Sky (2006) unites violinist Baird Dodge with CSO’s MusicNOW Ensemble and conductor Oliver Knussen, who, like Maestro Boulez, is an accomplished composer. Carillon Sky is a de facto violin concerto, but Ms. Thomas expectedly utilizes the concerto form in innovative ways. Her faculty for distilling the most essential spirits from long-standing musical forms suggests that traditions are liberating rather than confining for Ms. Thomas, much as they were for Brahms. More than in many of the violin concerti of the 20th and 21st Centuries, the violin writing in Carillon Sky is focused on thematic development rather than empty display. Mr. Knussen leads the MusicNOW Ensemble in playing that complements Mr. Dodge’s bel canto-infused phrasing.

Silver Chants the Litanies (2004) for solo French horn and eighteen players hearkens back to the example of Schubert’s great F-Major Octet of 1824, and the masterful integration of the solo horn with the ensemble evokes memories of Richard Strauss, Mahler, and even Elgar. Dedicated to Luciano Berio, Ms. Thomas’s score applies a modern idiom to musical structures little changed since the days of Gabrieli’s Antiphonal music and Mozart’s Serenades for winds. Jack Delaney paces the Southern Methodist University Meadows Wind Ensemble’s performance of Silver Chants the Litanies with complete comprehension of the music’s demands. Horn soloist Gregory Hustis plays with the breath control of a great Lieder singer, phrasing even the most daunting lines of his part with consummate adroitness. The expressiveness of the music is magnificently realized, and the subtle indebtedness to Berio is repaid with stirring warmth.

For reasons that defy explanation and understanding, the notions of approachability and pleasure in contemporary Classical Music have assumed negative connotations. Many sages of modern music would have it that new music is of lasting quality only if it repulses the listener. In order to survive the changing prejudices and priorities of successive generations, music must inspire genuine affection among those who hear and perform it, however. The performances on this disc assert that the six works of Augusta Read Thomas recorded on this first installment in Nimbus Alliance’s intended anthology of the composer’s music have precisely that effect on the world-class musicians involved: these performances brim with affection for the music, and it is a sentiment that impersonal microphones cannot diminish. It is infuriating and saddening to think that there may be other composers as talented as Augusta Read Thomas whose work suffers neglect because of lingering stupidity and discrimination. This disc featuring standard-setting performances of six emblematic works by Augusta Read Thomas is thus all the more elating. Even in times as troubling and uncertain as these, important music is again victorious.