Augusta Read Thomas: A rare focus on a living composer's new music highlights this season

Twice this season the composer Augusta Read Thomas has come down from Chicago to hear new

Two major works by Augusta Read Thomas have been heard this season here.

works performed at Hilbert Circle Theatre.  This weekend it's the turn of "Toward a Secret Sky," a cantata commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which is giving the premiere in two performances, along with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The second is at 5:30 p.m. today.

The ISO in February gave the local premiere of her piece titled "Sun Dance," co-commissioned with other orchestras. Indianapolis audiences have thus had ample opportunity to become familiar with Thomas' bright, detailed, sometimes ecstatic manner of composition for large forces. In "Toward a Secret Sky," using texts from the medieval Sufi poet Rumi, Thomas has come up with musical settings, in nine movements without interruption, that strive to capture a spirituality reassuring everyone of its permanent, universal availability. Love is the keynote, the self is a powerful vehicle to transcendence, and what the composer calls "cosmic grace" made a unique communication of such a message available to her, and thence to all attentive listeners.

As heard Friday night, the main challenge to such attention was scoring that forged a pervasive unity of chorus and orchestra, as if the singers were another section of the orchestra. The well-trained choir, under the guidance of Eric Stark, also the conductor of these concerts, seems to have mastered the difficulty of its assignment. But the massed sound allowed relatively few lines to come through clearly.

High resonance shone in "O day arise! Shine your light, the atoms are dancing." How could it not, with such a text to elevate the music? "I Tell You: Suns Exist," the second section, picks up the dance imagery, with fanfares to highlight the exaltation. It soon became a rare joy, as well as a landmark, to hear such clear lines as "Don't ask anyone about Love, ask Love about love." When the women began the next section with the soft insinuation of "I am an atom," I began to count milestones in this high-flown journey. 

The orchestra reinforces the need to take the long view, but the parade of details had one longing for pregnant pauses, where words would take precedence. Rhythmic and textural variety makes distinction between the sections, which helps listeners track the progress. In the middle, Thomas has fashioned her own apotheosis of Arnold Schoenberg's sound-color melody in the 1912 "Five Orchestra Pieces," in which changes of timbre sustain and subtly alter a long line. She's a virtuoso of this sort of thing, and the orchestra made a proper spectacle of it.

Max Beerbohm once wrote a parody of late Henry James called "The Mote in the Middle Distance," in which a brother and sister try to resist the temptation to peek into their Christmas stockings prematurely. Well-wrought concentration makes James' exquisite prose difficult to negotiate, but fun as expertly parodied by Beerbohm. While it was romancing the sublime, Thomas' piece maintained a similarly convoluted focus on minutiae.

 In addition to brief solos elsewhere in the orchestra and some arresting instrumental combinations, the four percussionists are crucial, as they were in "Sun Dance." They are mainly involved with mallet and tuned instruments (tubular bells aptly underline the announcement that "Love is a cloud that scatters pearls"). They contribute much to the impression of fractal imagery in musical dress, pointing to  hard-to-perceive motes in the middle distance of the Rumi universe. Peeks into Christmas stockings of enlightenment are promised, and Stark and his large gathering of musicians did their best to provide revelations. 

The program's first half drew upon sacred music from the Christian tradition, starting with "Let the bright seraphim" by George Frideric Handel, a soprano aria with a dazzling obbligato part for solo trumpet. The featured soloists were Christina Pier and Conrad Jones, with a small orchestra of ISO players accompanying. The soprano didn't manage all the divisions crisply and her tone in the middle and low registers sounded veiled. Up high there were welcome signs of a brilliance to match the trumpeter's, especially in the repeated "A" section of the da capo aria. 

Pier's voice opened up and became more lyrical and flowing in the other piece, Francis Poulenc's liturgically based "Gloria." This brought forward  the ISC's customary skills and those of a cunningly deployed full orchestra, with lots of sparkle in the "Domine Fili unigenite" section. The soloist seemed comfortable connecting phrases and soaring in the "Agnus Dei." In the concluding "Qui sedes ad dexteram patris," she was joined in radiance by the brass and a strong showing by the choir's tenors.

But the centerpiece remains the commissioned work. Further acquaintance with "Toward a Secret Sky," particularly if the planned recording rights some of the imbalance I heard Friday, is certain to boost admiration for the intricacy and passion of Thomas' new work, and those motes in the middle distance might no longer vanish amid the huge vistas of the whole. 


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