Monday 16 November 2020

The Auditions: Augusta Read Thomas' new ballet score on disc as part of Nimbus ongoing series devoted to her music

Augusta Read Thomas The Auditions, Selene; ICE Ensemble, Vimbayi Kaziboni, Third Coast Percussion, CLiff Colnot; NIMBUS

Augusta Read Thomas The Auditions, Selene; ICE Ensemble, Vimbayi Kaziboni, Third Coast Percussion, CLiff Colnot; NIMBUS ALLIANCE

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The eighth volume of Nimbus' series devoted to American composer Augusta Read Thomas includes the first outing on disc of hea major ballet score and a new version of an old favourite

I interviewed the American composer Augusta Read Thomas way back in 2015 [Musicweb International], when she was in London for the premiere of a new work at the Wigmore Hall,  and whilst there have been opportunities to hear her work live in the UK since then, she is not perhaps as well known as she deserves. But the ongoing series devoted to her work on Nimbus is making much of her catalogue available for exploration.

The latest volume, no. 8, in Nimbus Alliance's series devoted Augusta Read Thomas is The Auditions and other works, which features her 2019 ballet The Auditions performed by ICE Ensemble, conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni, alongside a version of Selene arranged for Third Coast Percussion, conductor Cliff Colnot, Avian Capriccio performed by Axiom Brass Quintet, Plea for Peace performed by Jessica Aszodi (soprano), Yuan-Qing Yu and Ni Mei (violins), WeiJing Wang (viola), Ken Olsen (cello), Ripple Effects for carillon performed by Joey Brink and Michael Solotke, Two Thoughts About the Piano performed by Daniel Pesca (piano), and Your Kiss performed by Claire Booth (soprano) and Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano).

We begin with Avian Capriccio performed by Axiom Brass Quintet, who commissioned the work for their 10th anniversary in 2016. With each of the work's three movements inspired by a different bird the result is some striking and interesting brass writing. The first movement 'Humming Birds' is suitably fleet and dazzling, with all the five brass instruments showing remarkable dexterity, whilst the second movement 'Swans' is all sustained, long lines and almost flows into 'Canaries' with its rather jazzy rhythms.

Plea for Peace is a vocalise for soprano and string quartet. It opens with the voice intertwining with instruments, and Read Thomas' rather spare instrumental writing puts the focus very much on the soprano. The work builds to an intense, but short moment then dies. The result is striking, yet inconclusive. Ripple Effects is for carillon which was commissioned by the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel when it was premiered by four players (including Joey Brink who is on this recording) in 2018 though the work exists in a number of flexible versions, and is here heard in a version for two players (four hands and four feet). The sound is magical bells, but certainly a very occasional work!

Troy Schumacher, Augusta Read Thomas: The Auditions - Martha Graham Dance Company (Photo Marina Levitskaya)
Troy Schumacher, Augusta Read Thomas: The Auditions - Martha Graham Dance Company
(Photo Marina Levitskaya)

The main work on the disc is The Auditions, Read Thomas' 25-minute ballet score for the Martha Graham Dance Company (the image on the CD cover is also from the ballet) and premiered by them in November 2019 with choreography by Troy Schumacher. The Auditions premiered at Montclair State University, where the score was performed by the performers on this disc, in a double bill with an iconic Martha Graham piece, Appalachian Spring. The Auditions is in seven sections, alternating three audition scenes with four dreamier scene-setting scenes. Schumacher describes the work thus 'The Auditions is about a group of people in the present looking to be pioneers who are unsure of where they are going or how and why they will get there.' So we sense, perhaps that the dreamier scenes represent the new world that these pioneers are longing for.

We open in an aetherial world, spare and evocative, whilst the first audition is vivid yet quite spare. Read Thomas uses an imaginative range of orchestra colours; her style is approachable yet the harmony is suitably zingy. The piece continues with this alternation between aetherial and vivid, with Read Thomas sometimes being quite daring in the sheer spareness of her writing. There is a considered quality to the music, not so much a narrative as a sense of clear dramatic presence. Colour and rhythm are important throughout; I have no idea whether the result made a good dance score, but certainly it makes for intriguing and colourful listening. The alternation between the two states, aetherial and vivid, sometimes makes the work seem a little too schematic

Read Thomas' Two Thoughts About the Piano is a response to an Elliott Carter work (without ever quoting the Carter) and results in a fleet and rather jazzy work. The piece was commissioned by the Open Source Festival for pianist Joel Fan who premiered it in New York in 2017.

Selene was originally written for percussion quartet and string quartet (and featured in this version on an earlier volume in this Nimbus series),  and it is performed here in a version for percussion and wind nonet (identical percussion parts, wind parts replacing the strings) created by Cliff Colnot, the conductor on this version. Third Coast Percussion in fact gave the premiere of the original work in 2015, with the Jack Quartet. In Greek mythology, Selene, goddess of the moon, drives her moon chariot across the heavens and the work's subtitle is 'Moon chariot rituals'! The work is one continuous movement, though there are clearly defined sections. The wind nonet seems to be there mainly to provide harmonic support and the focus for much of the work's 16 minutes is the percussion battery. As in The Auditions, colours are bright and writing vivid, whilst the fast sections have a similar snappiness to the rhythmic writing with quite a lot of hocket-like writing, rendered brilliantly here. There are no solo moments as such, Read Thomas uses her two ensembles as a sort of continuum, the one supporting the other. For those interested in the fine detail, the page on Read Thomas' website devoted to Selene includes full details of the percussion instruments used.

Finally, we have a setting of a love poem e.e. cumming, Your Kiss which dates from 2019 and was first performed at the recording session for this disc! This is not the bon bouche that you might expect. Read Thomas takes cummings' poem (aphoristic certainly but not funny) and uses soprano melismas and placed notes in the piano to make us feel that time is standing still.

The two large-scale works, The Auditions and Selene form the core of this disc and as a recent work indeed it The Auditions makes a welcome appearance on disc, and gives us a chance to hear the composer in another mode. The trick with any such compilation disc is however how the whole programme hangs together. The disc is indeed full of colour and movement, and individual works claim our attention, but whilst admirers of Augusta Read Thomas' work will enjoy the variety on offer, the casual listener may wish for a clearer narrative through the works.

Augusta Read Thomas (born 1964) - Avian Capriccio
Augusta Read Thomas - Plea for Peace [2016]
Augusta Read Thomas - Ripple Effects [2018]
Augusta Read Thomas - The Auditions [2019]
Augusta Read Thomas - Two Thoughts About the Piano [2017]
Augusta Read Thomas - Selene [2015]
Augusta Read Thomas - Your Kiss (2019)
Axiom Brass Quintet
Jessica Aszodi (soprano)
Yuan-Qing Yu and Ni Mei (violin)
WeiJing Wang (viola)
Ken Olsen (cello)
Joey Brink and Michael Solotke (carillon)
ICE Ensemble / Vimbayi Kaziboni, conductor
Daniel Pesca (piano)
Third Coast Percussion / Cliff Colnot, conductor
Claire Booth (soprano)
Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano)
The Auditions recorded at Montclair State University in November 2019
Nimbus Alliance NI 6402 1CD [79.57]

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