Guest maestro Sir Andrew Davis returns to Dallas to conduct the final world premiere of the DSO's 2006-2007 season: Helios Choros I by the American composer Augusta Read Thomas. Ms. Thomas, whose works have been performed locally not only by the DSO, but also by Voices of Change, the SMU Meadows Symphony Orchestra and the Meadows Wind Ensemble, has embarked on the largest orchestral canvas of her career. Helios Choros I is the first segment of a giant three-part work whose components will be able to be performed independently, in twos, or in their entirety.
The title comes from the Greek sun god, who drove across the sky in a chariot from east to west each day. Ms. Thomas's new piece is a 12-minute crescendo, filled with colorful sounds and high-energy passion. "I had asked people lots of questions about the DSO before starting to write," Thomas says. "They told me the percussion section was awesome. I was inspired to start the piece featuring the percussion. Everything played during the first four or five minutes is material for the rest of the piece. At first, you hear these motives and harmonic fields in a fractured way, through these delicate and colorful percussion sonorities. Then all the same materials keep swirling back."
Watch the busy percussion section at the start. It includes a rare glockenspiel solo Thomas's subtitle is an important clue; dance impulses and rhythm are important to this piece. Notice the nuances of colors, dynamics, articulations, and resonances. Clearly this composer loves to write for orchestra and has done so many times.
Composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1997 to 2006, Augusta Read Thomas is not only one of the most prominent women in American music, but also one of the most acclaimed living composers, period. She has held faculty appointments at the Eastman School of Music and at Northwestern University, but now devotes her time exclusively to composition. Ms. Thomas, who was educated at Northwestern, Yale, and London's Royal Academy of Music, divides her time among Chicago, Aspen, Colorado; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Rome, where she is a visiting fellow at the American Academy. She is married to the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Bernard Rands.
She has accumulated an impressive discography for a composer still in her early 40s. Nearly every major orchestra and dozens of regional orchestras have played her music. Her relationship with Dallas ensembles has been strong. The DSO last played her music in October 1991, with subscription performances of Glass Moon. SMU's Meadows Symphony Orchestra commissioned Silver Chants the Litanies, in memoriam Luciano Berio for horn and orchestra in 2004; DSO principal horn Gregory Hustis was the soloist. The SMU Meadows Wind Ensemble has also programmed works by Thomas. The Dallas-based new music ensemble Voices of Change performed her Angel Musings in 2000 and will present three of Thomas's chamber works this Sunday evening in SMU's Caruth Auditorium.
"I thought it would be challenging to build something with a larger architecture. Orchestras rarely commission 50-minute works. These three commissions gave me an opportunity to evolve my materials over a longer time span. I wanted to write a much bigger composition. Mahler is one of my idols. His slow movements are very much on my mind as a model, as are his large symphonies.
She has been sketching the three segments simultaneously but composing one at a time. Certain sections of each Helios Choros will relate to each other, but with no repeated material or quotations. The unifying element is the concept of the Helios Choros [see sidebar, "In the Composer's Words"]. Thomas's established gift for colorful, dramatic, intense music is well-suited to this ambitious project.
Ms. Thomas's note on Helios Choros I appears in the sidebar. Her score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, a large percussion complement [see below], piano (doubling celesta), two harps, and strings.
Guest composer August Read Thomas has graciously provided her own note for the world premiere of Helios Choros I (Sun God Dancers):
"In Greek mythology, Helios was the sun god, son of Hyperion, depicted as driving his chariot across the sky from east to west daily. Choros in ancient Greek drama means a band of dancers whose singing, dancing, and narration provide explanation and elaboration of the main action.
"Helios Choros I could be described loosely as an 12-minute crescendo. The first four minutes present delicate, sparkling and glistening sounds, introduced by 2 harps, celesta, piano, a variety of bells, string harmonics and string pizzicatti. The music evokes a subtle, playful and ethereal reflection of the vast, subtle array of twinkling, shimmering points, and a gradual rise in rhythmic, dancing energy.
"The remainder of the work is high-energy passion, in which blocks of sound-worlds are juxtaposed in an early-Stravinsky-like manner. For instance you will hear a block of chord progressions, and then a block of low register jig-like gambols, and then a block of tunes intertwined. These, and various other sections, crosscut quickly and very gradually coalesce.
"It was my aim in this work to write continuous fast, animated music. (Lots of notes!) Like all of my music, this work is based on a very integrated set of musical materials. It is my goal to compose music that remembers and knows the repertoire but also pushes forward in its own voice. For instance, my music remembers what the flute meant to Debussy, what a major third has been in a universe of melodic and harmonic languages, what bells meant in past cultures, remembering forms and textures, remembering processes of narration and drama. It remembers colors, and impulses, and the risk of early Stravinsky, and the counterpoint of Bach, and the melodies of Mahler songs, and the inflection of Ella, and the invention of Coltrane, etc.
"With [the Italian composer] Luciano Berio [1925-2003] as one model, my music tries to invent continuities not to rupture and break from the past and attempts to do so without being clich&3acute;, nostalgic or sappy. Music's eternal quality is its capacity for change, transformation and renewal.
"Helios Choros I is part of a 50-minute triptych of works that will hopefully someday be performed together, on one concert, as well as recorded together on one CD.
"The works can be played all together or separately, or any two can be played together.
"Helios Choros I is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Sir Andrew Davis, Victor Marshall, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. These are its premiere performances. Duration: 12 minutes.
"Helios Choros II, commissioned by the Orchestra of Paris, Christoph Eschenbach conducting, will premiere on December 12, 2007. Duration: 15 minutes
"Helios Choros III co-commissioned by the London SO and Boston SO. LSO premiere in December 2008. BSO premiere date TBD. Duration: 20 minutes."
Augusta Read Thomas
SIDEBAR: THE CREATIVE PROCESS: AUGUSTA READ THOMAS
Most composers today use specialized computer software when they write music. Augusta Read Thomas still works the old-fashioned way, by hand on manuscript paper. She is a careful planner with an established work method and a keen eye for detail.
"For each piece I write, whether it's solo violin, large orchestra, orchestra/chorus, or whatever, I begin by drawing a map of the piece," she explains. "For Helios Choros I, I drew a fifteen-minute map and subdivided it into various sections. I know exactly how long each section lasts, what the transitions are between those sections, the major key areas, what is the motivic, the timbral life of those sections. I end up having lots of drawings of each piece. In that sense, the process is formal and organized.
"If I 'conduct' through the piece several times, sometimes I realize that one section is not in proportion to the next section, or in fact that the music is rich and needs more time. So the planning is careful: I have these maps and I follow them. On the other hand, I like to keep the music alive and improvised, not academic or dry or prescribed. There's always a balance between having an architecture that works beautifully, with the right proportion, that makes people feel comfortable and solid about where they are in the piece. At the same time, it has to have a magical mystery tour about it!
"Another important aspect is that my music is extremely nuanced, detail-oriented. Every note in my score tells the players and conductor which dynamic, with what kind of accent, where does the pedal get lifted, how much is the decay in the harp or the vibraphone, on which string to play pizzicato. I try to be as specific as possible with every detail, because then the performers know what is the inner life of the motives, the sound world that I want and they can play it better!"
AUGUSTA READ THOMAS
Listeners interested in Ms. Thomas's music will want to hear Words of the Sea, an all-Thomas CD with conductors Pierre Boulez and Oliver Knussen, violinist Baird Dodge, and soprano Christine Brandes with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the CSO's MusicNow Ensemble (ARTCD). The disc includes the title work; In My Sky at Twilight; and Carillon Sky for solo violin and 14 players. David Finckel is the cello soloist in Thomas's Cello Concerto on Cello Classics New & Old, with Felix Chiu-Sen Chen leading the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (ArtistLed).
Visit August Read Thomas's web site: www.augustareadthomas.com
An article about Ms. Thomas is scheduled for publication this month in BBC Music Magazine.
Also: Martin Anderson, "Idealism and Enthusiasm in the Windy City: Callisto Plays Augusta Read Thomas," Fanfare, Mar/Apr 2007
Wynne Delacoma, "Composer Augusta Read Thomas," Symphony Magazine, Mar/Apr 2005
The New Grove II
Brad Lubman conducts American music at the Wien Modern
In this performance of American composers at the Wien Modern festival, Brad Lubman's clarity of interpretation, as well as the truly astonishing acoustics of the Musikverein allowed all of the pieces on this program to reach listeners with absolute clarity, hard edges removed and full of interesting and beautiful sounds.
The program was well-selected, with a coherent progression of ideas that mostly displayed the strengths of the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich.
In a stroke of genius programming, Helios Choros I, a ballet for orchestra (2006/7) by Augusta Read Thomas brought a welcome sense of physicality back into the evening, after the total subjugation of harmony, rhythm and melody in the first two pieces. Written to be danced to, this piece relies heavily on rhythmic elements. The orchestra played the delicate opening beautifully right up until the first brass fanfare, which announced the beginning of a driving rhythm that lasts throughout the piece. From here, the orchestra was visibly holding on, always just off the groove that Mr. Lubman was so clearly transmitting. With the cross-orchestra percussion and piano lines leading the rhythmic tearing, it was a difficult race to the finish.
"In an age when most music is composed at computers, Augusta Read Thomas still stands at a drafting table and puts pen to lined paper.
"Ms. Thomas isn't one of the easy-listening American composers who in recent decades have seduced audiences by recycling established musical gestures.
"Although she says she carefully plots out the proportions of her pieces, they have the visceral impact of something created by hand and sung by a live voice. Sensuous pleasures are inextricable from intellectual challenges.
"...a logical connection: Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Both pieces are brightly scored, and both make much of jazzy figures."
CLASSICAL REVIEW: World premiere by U.S. composer is engaging, deftly scored
"The program opens with a brand-new work, commissioned by the DSO, from American composer August Read Thomas. Titled Helios Choros I.
"Tinklings of chimes, vibraphone, celesta, glockenspiel, cymbals and harp set a magical tone at the start. Gradually, other parts of the orchestra weave a complex tapestry of lively little motifs. Fanfares are tossed back and forth among the brasses, basses snap strings against fingerboards and violins thread something like a song through the dither.
"Deftly scored, it had much to engage the ear, and Sir Andrew led a brilliant, carefully balanced performance. Ms. Thomas gave a helpful spoken introduction."
NSO, Oliver Knussen Ride the 'Current' Together
Oliver Knussen conducting HELIOS CHOROS I at the Kennedy Center
"Thomas is perhaps the most cerebral of the evening's composers; her piece, conceived as a dance though it has not been so performed, rootled and bustled energetically through complex harmonies, almost fierce in its determination to be effervescent. She is a skilled technician, pulling in a wide range of sounds; I particularly liked the complex, chewy juxtaposition of driving piano, singing strings and the tocks and clicks of percussion."
Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers)
Program Note by Robert Maycock
© by Robert Maycock, All Rights Reserved
World premiere, 2008
Dedicated with admiration and gratitude to the London Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Martin Mellish. Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Music Director, with generous support of Martin Mellish.
As the number in the title suggests, Helios Choros II is more than
a stand-alone. The piece is a 20-minute burst of brilliant sounds and forceful forward movement, one of three with the Helios Choros title. August Read Thomas imagined a ballet running about 45 minutes about the Greek sun god Helios, who drives his chariot across the sky every day choros being the 'Greek chorus', the singers, dancers and narrators who sustained the ancient dramatic form by explaining and commenting on the action. The outer sections of the ballet had their first performances in 2007, in Dallas and Paris respectively. Although the composer intends the music for a fully staged production at some time, all three panels, as she calls them in analogy with a three-part painting, can be performed on their own or in any combination of two.
It's an ingenious way for a practically-minded composer to solve the problem, which grows bigger by the year, of how to sustain and indeed fund the long period needed to write an extended work for orchestra. In all, four orchestras have been involved in commissioning the three sections, leading to three world premieres, and of course eventually a fourth of the complete Helios Choros. She has said that tonight's, "being the centre panel of the larger work is, in some ways, the hardest to hear alone because the reference points established in Helios Choros I are unknown to the listener and 'the place to which the piece is going' is also left undiscovered. On the other hand, even if a listener were to drop into the middle of a Mahler Symphony or Stravinsky's Petrushka, for instance, still one could get a fair sense of the whole, larger work."
And on another level, the piece has such a sense of direction that it's perfectly straightforward to follow in its own right. There's a rush of activity at the start, breaking off suddenly for a quiet episode marked 'Spacious and timeless'. From here on, it's broadly speaking a matter of getting up to speed again by stages, then maintaining the pace fairly flexibly as the music continues to evolve. Transformation is the key to much of Thomas's music; she never repeats exactly. This gives a spontaneous quality to the lyrical and energetic flow. The orchestration is bold and clear, with a leaning towards high and bright pitches, and the dance character embodied in a score with some striking turns of phrase: it isn't every day that performers are asked to be 'Playful and majestic' or 'Nimble, spry and energized'.
Robert Maycock writes about music for The Independent and magazines from BBC Music to Songlines, with special interests in French, contemporary and world music. His book Glass: A Portrait was published by Sanctuary in 2002.
Click here for a PDF of Classical Music's item on the December 2008 London Symphony premiere.
"The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed an exceptionally energetic program on Thursday night, October 15, under the baton of former BSO assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot. Without doubt the most remarkable, and to many the most anticipated performance of the evening was the American premiere of Augusta Read Thomas's Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers). The piece lived well up to its expectations and was delivered immaculately by the orchestra and Morlot, who is no stranger to conducting contemporary music. Thomas is one of the rare composers who not only allows her personality to shine through her music, but allows the many facets of her persona to become concentrated and interact throughout her works. Helios Choros II, like the Stravinsky, was full of dance-like energy but had a far wider emotional and dynamic range. The piece was much like walking into a room with a handful of very distinct, idiosyncratic characters. They're having a conversation. Some are interested in what the others are saying, and respond with relevant and affected musical retorts; while others are only interested and hearing themselves speak and interject arrogantly and willfully throughout the piece. The piece seems to revel in this counterpoint of development and non-development with the end goal of establishing an overall dramatic corollary to a collective of musical personalities.
Augusta Read Thomas with Ludovic Morlot at the Boston Symphony rehearsal of the American Premiere of HELIOS CHOROS II
Photograph © Copyright by Michael Lutch
"Helios Choros II is the second and longest component of a three-part symphonic triptych. Along with Helios Choros I (commissioned by the Dallas Symphony) and Helios Choros II (commissioned by the Orchestre de Paris), the full work runs roughly around 40 minutes. Elliott Carter's Symphonia was conceived in a similar manner, as different orchestras commissioned three movements at different times. Nowadays, Symphonia is rarely performed except in its entirety, which begs the question: When will Helios Choros be performed altogether? It would be quite a treat if the Boston Symphony Orchestra would provide the hinges for this splendid work."
"In addition to those works, the BSO entrusted Morlot last night with the American premiere of a piece by Augusta Read Thomas, Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers), co-commissioned with the London Symphony Orchestra.
"The work is conceived to be freestanding but it also serves as the central movement of a much larger piece Thomas is cobbling together with commissions from two additional orchestras. Her hope is that one day it will be taken up by a ballet company. Until then, the dancers for this bright, vivid, compelling music are strictly imaginary.
"Thomas's approach often weds a preference for rugged complexity with a keen ear for the sensuality of sound. So too Helios Choros II is very densely scored for a large orchestra with multiple layers of near constant activity short sunken fanfares, fast instrumental relays, jagged violin solos, a pizzicato echo chamber and yet a sense of rhetorical coherence nonetheless emerges.
"The music holds the ear but does not overwhelm it. Morlot and the orchestra gave the work a vibrant first reading last night, responsive to its challenging rhythmic demands as well as to its fractured lyricism."
"A not overflowing Barbican Hall greeted this lengthy but well-balanced programme, whose centrepiece is itself the central panel in a choreographic triptych that American composer Augusta Read Thomas is currently writing for orchestras on either side of the Atlantic. A co-commission between the Boston Symphony and London Symphony orchestras, Helios Choros II takes as its point of departure the sun god and his chariot rides across the sky as evoked by the 'chorus' in Ancient Greek drama. What will amount to a substantial overall work should be worth seeing in its ballet guise (in terms of rhythmic profile, the music feels eminently danceable) but, heard on its own terms, Helios Choros II stands as a notable achievement. The highly virtuosic use of sizeable forces makes it a 'concerto for orchestra' in all but name, while the formal follow-through has a cohesion that might reasonably be called symphonic. The energetic opening section makes use of salient motifs which are resourcefully deployed in the slower music that follows, followed by a 'scherzo' of real velocity and an 'intermezzo' of teasing reticence; capped by the final section whose eventual culmination in propulsive rhythmic unisons provides not only a decisive rounding-off but also a powerful transition to what is to follow. Vividly dispatched by the LSO and Daniel Harding, Helios Choros II left a positive impression; not least in the way that, without a hint of self-consciousness, it brought to mind such composers as Jacob Druckman or the Donald Erb composers whose distinctive orchestral sensibility has now been overshadowed by the relative vacuity of post-Minimalist and neo-Romantic idioms. Read Thomas has here struck a much-needed blow for change, and one looks forward to hearing the complete work in due course."
"The LSO did its bit to fight the recession tonight, with so many musicians they packed the stage to capacity. Ticket sales were healthy, too, and the performance definitely lifted the spirits!
"Even more gargantuan was Augusta Read Thomas' Helios Choros II, receiving its world premiere. This is the middle movement from a large triptych, which will eventually be expanded still further. No less than four orchestras on two continents are involved in the commission. It's an extravaganza, full of incident and theatrical effects, as it's meant to be choreographed. Pre-recession confidence! Wild applause indicates it should be very popular as spectacle."
"Bouncily played and enthusiastically conducted, this sun-worshipping piece gave us appropriately strong, bright colours, airy cascades and some razzy writing for the trombones..."
Helios Choros III
Program Note by the Composer
Helios Choros III, commissioned by and dedicated to the Orchestra of Paris and Christoph Eschenbach, is the third part of a 45-minute triptych. The works can be played all together or separately, or any two can be played together. Helios Choros III lasts 15 minutes. Helios Choros I was composed in 2006 and was premiered by the Dallas Symphony, Sir Andrew Davis conducting. Helios Choros II, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra, will premiere on 14 December 2008.
Helios, in Greek Mythology, is the sun god, son of Hyperion, depicted as driving his chariot across the sky from east to west daily. Choros in ancient Greek drama means a band of dancers whose singing, dancing, and narration provide explanation and elaboration of the main action.
|"Augusta is a warm musician, with energetic works. Sun God Dancers is not a vain promise. I know Augusta from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I admire her work, which I would define as muscled, against the grain of what one might think of as music by a woman. This is not weak, but a vibrant material, dense, marked by an archaic energy in the Greek sense as her title refers to the solar cult that nourished Greek cultures."
on Helios Choros III
My main inspiration while spending a lifetime writing music is music itself. I listen to "Jazz" as frequently as I listen to "Classical" music. Like all of my music, this work is based on a very integrated set of musical materials. What comes first for me? The sounds, the rhythms, the colors, the harmonies and then I work hard to integrate them across a 45-minute landscape.
For instance, Helios Choros III can be heard in the form of a 15-minute crescendo, with a denouement at the end. Within that simple crescendo form, there are many sections of varying character, color, rhythmic syntax, and so forth. Despite the huge differences between these subdivisions, they are all based on the same musical materials, looked at and analyzed from a variety of perspectives, and then, rejoined and combined to be part of a larger, integrated whole.
When you hear Helios Choros III, one has to imagine that, in the whole triptych, the audience will have already heard 30 minutes of music by the time the first sound of Helios Choros III starts with its lilting, light-footed and colorful dance in 6/8 meter, which is frequently interrupted by other mixed meters. Two harps, with the strings playing pizzicato, are at the center of the sound, but soon the entire orchestra is contributing to this dance, emulating a mega-harp. Gradually floating solo flute lines are excited out of the harmonies. The two solo flutes lead the music into an episode mostly for solo woodwinds, which is florid and playful. That transforms into a passage of slow, glowing, warm and resonant harmonies, in which the trombone has a long high lyrical solo. The slow music becomes active from the inside, starts to shimmer and oscillate, until it builds up enough momentum to gradually become majestic and then energized and intense.
From here until the end, continuous fast (lots of notes!), animated, virtuosic, high-energy music takes over. The music is driving and relentless, while always multi-colored. Blocks of sound-worlds are juxtaposed. For instance, you will hear a block of gritty fanfare-like, brassy lines and chord progressions, and then a block of low register jig-like gambols, and then a block of rhythmically animated intertwined tunes. These, and various other sections, crosscut quickly and very gradually coalesce. The final 80 seconds of the work, featuring the concertmaster, is a dreamy and spacious conclusion, which bring the 45-minute triptych to a modest, very quiet ending.
Augusta Read Thomas
Cleveland Orchestra performs concert of modern works / Oliver Knussen Conducting
"Along with Knussen, the biggest name on the program was Augusta Read Thomas. Representing her considerable oeuvre was Helios Choros III, the finale of a triptych ballet about the Greek god who rides his chariot across the sky.
"In just 12 restlessly inventive minutes, Thomas and the orchestra took listeners on a fantastically evocative journey through a rugged rite to a serene sendoff into the heavens.
"In between were wild woodwind solos, driving passages for percussion, rapid-fire shots from the brass and a slow section whose long-held notes called to mind an enveloping mist. Any more content and Helios Choros would have exploded like a solar flare."
To obtain examination or performance material for any of Augusta Read Thomas's works, please contact G. Schirmer Inc..