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Thomas: The Auditions

Release Date: 05/01/2020 
Label:  Nimbus   Catalog #: 6402  
Composer:  Augusta Read Thomas
Performer:  Ni MeiJessica AszodiYuan-Qing YuWeiJing Wang,   ... 
Conductor:  Vimbayi KaziboniCliff Colnot
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Axiom Brass QuintetInternational Contemporary EnsembleThird Coast Percussion
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Volume 8 in this series documenting Augusta Read Thomas' music, three major scores dominate, with 4 shorter works filling out this 80-minute sonic portrait of an inexhaustibly inventive and individual composer. The brass quintet Avian Capriccio is typically free-wheeling in its evocation of 3 contrasting types of birds, hummingbirds, swans and canaries. Scored for wordless soprano and string quartet, Plea for Peace acts as a single, seamless block beginning in near-immobility, with the voice animating the instruments as the music embarks on its slow, implacable progress. Even in a catalogue as multifarious as Thomas', the carillon piece Ripple Effects stands out as a one-off. Commissioned by Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago and devised in a Read more number of versions, sculpted for carillons of three sizes, requiring varying numbers of players. The ballet score The Auditions was written for the Martha Graham Dance Company, and with it, Thomas joins a distinguished company of composers who wrote scores for this seminal figure in modern dance. It is structured in 7 sections, with the auditions of the title being the even-numbered, action-packed sections, and the odd-numbered ones acting as slower, more otherworldly frames. That Two Thoughts About The Piano's title should be identical to a work by Elliott Carter is no accident, as Thomas' work is a response to the older composer's piece without actually quoting or even emulating Carter's music. We've already encountered Selene in a previous volume of this ongoing survey of Thomas' music, but it appears here in a wholly new dress. The original was for string and percussion quartets, but here the strings are replaced by a woodwind nonet in an arrangement by Cliff Colnot, thus preserving the original's harmonic richness. Bringing this collection to a close, Your Kiss sets a love poem by e.e. cummings for soprano and piano.



The Nimbus label has done well by Augusta Read Thomas in recent years, and this is the eighth title in their catalogue dedicated entirely to her work. This well-filled collection is orientated around three major scores with a further four shorter works adding value and variety, if that were needed.

Avian Capriccio is a brass quintet in three movements, each of which evokes the character of three species of birds. The first describes the acrobatics of hummingbirds with notes tumbling over each other with lively energy, and sustained notes perhaps describing their ability to maintain stillness in the air. Swans form the slow central movement, their languid motion on the water reflected in stillness in music that builds gradually, changing direction like a shift in viewpoint that seems to become airborne, though of this we can’t be entirely sure. The final movement takes us into the more funky and syncopated world of some playful canaries.

Plea for Peace is written for soprano and string quartet, the vocal soloist’s part being a wordless vocalise. This is more a micro-opera, a dramatic shape than anything with a tune that you will find yourself humming. There is a stillness in the opening that builds into something impassioned and emotionally complex, the pace of the music remaining spacious while its intensity does its work, the final moments receding once again into stillness. Ripple Effects for carillon, two-players is “a labyrinth of musical interrelationships and connections that increases in complexity as more and more players are added to this ever-expanding spiderweb of peals.” I think Thomas means ‘bells’ rather than ‘players’ but we get the idea. There is more going on here than merely a wedge shape of increasing density, but these fascinating, dramatic and slightly mournful campanological sonorities are well captured here.

The Auditions, a ballet for chamber orchestra, was composed for the distinguished and innovative Martha Graham Dance Company. The score is divided into seven sections, with odd-numbered movements titled ‘The Landscape’ with generally slower, more dream-like atmospheres. Even-numbered movements titled ‘The Room’ are more rhythmic and energetic. Without the visual elements of movement and lighting this music still delivers a powerful sense of something elusively representative. The narrative, such as it is, is outlined in the subtitles of the movements, which move from scene setting and “introducing characters of auditioning dancers”, to the final audition and closing mystical landscape. To my ears this has a ritualistic feel which gives its progression a quality of inevitability, by which I don’t mean predictability. Thomas’ precision in instrumentation and skilfully subtle use of a variety of percussion delivers a plethora of colour and transparency, and the whole thing is strikingly stimulating. It has a Stravinsky-like edge, but rarely sounds like Stravinsky.

Two Thoughts About The Piano shares the same name with a work by Elliott Carter and is a response to it. The piece shares a restless nerviness with Carter’s style, but there the comparison ends. Thomas’ idiom always has an orientation towards some kind of tonality, and the music’s virtuosity retains a kind of cadential direction throughout its single-movement duration.

Subtitled Moon Chariot Rituals in its original outing on NI6323, Selene was originally written for string and percussion quartets, but the version heard here has been arranged for woodwind nonet by Cliff Colnot. In his booklet notes, Paul Pellay writes that, “whereas the original’s strings-and-percussion configuration travelled through its 17 minutes with warm, chameleon-like hues, the present version emphasises stark, glittering colours, imparting [on] the journey a different, more boldly drawn sense of events rapidly unfolding, the lines sharper and more brightly lit”. The winds certainly offer a stronger counterpoint to the percussion, and I’m pushed to identify which version I prefer, so it’s probably better just to think of them as two related but different pieces. This is efficient and effectively scored music, but didn’t make as much an impression on me as the other pieces here. The programme concludes with Your Kiss for soprano and piano. This is a setting of a poem by e.e. Cummings, the text of which is printed in the booklet, and it is fascinating to read along with the recording to see what the composer does to illustrate and emphasise the words. It’s rarely any good longing for a nice tune when it comes to settings of this particular poet’s work.

Very well recorded and superbly performed, this is a very fine programme indeed of one of today’s leading composers. Augusta Read Thomas’ work rewards easily as much as it challenges, and is very much deserving of the attention it receives.

– MusicWeb International Read less

Works on This Recording

Avian Capriccio by Augusta Read Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Axiom Brass Quintet
Period: Contemporary 
Written: United States 
Children's Plea for Peace by Augusta Read Thomas
Performer:  Ni Mei (Violin), Jessica Aszodi (Soprano), Yuan-Qing Yu (Violin),
WeiJing Wang (Viola), Ken Olsen (Cello)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: United States 
Ripple Effects by Augusta Read Thomas
Performer:  Joey Brink (Carillons), Michael Solotke (Carillons)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: United States 
The Auditions by Augusta Read Thomas
Conductor:  Vimbayi Kaziboni
Orchestra/Ensemble:  International Contemporary Ensemble
Period: Contemporary 
Written: United States 
Two Thoughts About the Piano by Augusta Read Thomas
Performer:  Daniel Pesca (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: United States 
Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) by Augusta Read Thomas
Conductor:  Cliff Colnot
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Third Coast Percussion
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2014; United States 
Your Kiss by Augusta Read Thomas
Performer:  Claire Booth (Soprano), Andrew Matthews-Owen (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: United States 

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