Augusta Read Thomas: The Auditions

Volume 8 in this series documenting Augusta Read Thomas' music, three major scores (Avian Capriccio, The Auditions and Selene) dominate, with 4 shorter works filling out this 80-minute sonic portrait of an inexhaustibly inventive and individual composer.

The Cross-Eyed Pianist “Meet the Artist” A Q&A with Augusta Read Thomas

“I believe music feeds our souls. Humanity has and will always work together to further music’s flexible, diverse capacity and innate power.”



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The American composer Augusta Read Thomas has an intense voice, with an exceptional ear for timbral detail, clarity and the control of ebb and flow. This compilation, the eighth in a series documenting her music, centres on the ballet score The Auditions. written for the Martha Graham Dance Company, premiered in 2019: a mystical concept in which cycles of yearning aspiration and ascent seem to admit the protagonists gradually to higher planes of existence. It’s tremendously compelling, full of rhythmic sparkle, subtle shades of mood and a brilliant sense of interplay between the intriguing selection of instruments, the only downside being a slight over-reliance on high frequencies, seemingly a recurring feature of Read Thomas's style. Similar issues apply in Selene for percussion quartet and wind; but both receive sterling performances, respectively by the ICE Ensemble and Third Coast Percussion. Avian Capriccio is a quirky showpiece of three works for brass quintet, a quirky mix for depicting the likes of hummingbirds or swans. Ripple Effects for carillon duet and Two Thoughts About The Piano require - as do the other works - exceptional precision: special plaudits are due to the pianist Daniel Pesca. Perhaps the vocal works are ultimately the most touching: a word less Plea/or Peace, sung with pure expressiveness by-­Jessica Aszodi which allows stillness and fervour to shine through, and in 'Your Kiss' the soprano Claire Booth aspires to Read Thomas's stratospheric shining high pitches. The composer carries us with her into another world which, this time, becomes human.    Jessica Ducher, BBC Music Magazine




Martha Graham Dance Company - In the latest installment of “PEAK HD,” a series of performances recorded at Montclair State University’s Peak Performances and broadcast on WNET’s All Arts channel and Web site, the Graham company presents a classic and a commission (both available starting on Nov. 8). The 2019 performance of “Appalachian Spring,” Graham’s beloved evocation of life on the frontier, is notable for the exceptional vibrancy that the International Contemporary Ensemble brings to the great Copland score. The musicians also draw out the details in Augusta Read Thomas’s brilliant composition for “The Auditions,” a genuinely intriguing world première by the choreographer Troy Schumacher, in which dancers ascend from sneaker-ballet idiosyncrasy into an aurora borealis of tulle.


The New Yorker


The Auditions (2019), choreographed by Troy Schumacher and scored by Augusta Read Thomas, is to see movement, and even to feel a glimmer of pride that humans just keep fighting the damn fight… This was top-notch programming for a Sunday afternoon: perfect program length, no program notes, prairie dresses ( for Appalachian Spring/Copland) vs. crop top now, and content supple enough to lightly entertain its audience and sustain deeper discussion. Spring moved at butter-churn speed, devoting time to individual interactions but with limited communal enlightenment… The Auditions, however, was fast-paced communal enlightenment. It mimicked a young urban street, with Internet-era attention spans contrasted to the regal, focused attention in Spring. Dancers were engrossed in private trajectories, yet fully aware of one another. One by one, they each were trapped by a spotlight, and a descending string light offered the opportunity to be transported to another world… Nearly all were transported, and the remaining two danced themselves to death in their desperation to find enlightenment. Effective lighting by Yi-Chung Chen, costumes by Karen Young, and nice articulation by the omnipresent musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble made the story so effective that an engrossed toddler processed every point out loud—something I thought was wonderful, and proof of solid construction… Thomas created distinct, complicated musical habitats for Schumacher’s physical and emotional movement. She welded music that matched the straightforward drama: friendly pitched percussion and groove animated the sprightly search for meaning, and droning strings floated the calm enlightenment. Within these effective contrasts, however was a vital flexibility and wisdom. Neither musical place was quite what it seemed; high demands on chipper pitched percussion, and a peaceful rhythm unsettled by timbre, dislodged each habitat out of an easy category. Neither [dramatic] place was an ultimate failure or arrival, and Thomas gave a friendly reminder that change is unstoppable and growth is a choice… Is America grown? Is it maturing how we might wish after 75 years? No. But these two pieces, next to each other, suggested a move from individual settlers toward collective diversity, submerged experience toward shared desires, and an expanding emotional vocabulary. And Montclair University’s Peak Performances series created a pocket of hope that instead of just burning, the future could burn brightly.


National Sawdust Log


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. Ripple Effects is for carillon 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. The Auditions, Read Thomas' 25-minute ballet score for the Martha Graham Dance Company and premiered by them in November 2019 with choreography by Troy Schumacher. Set 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 sparseness 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; certainly it makes for intriguing and colourful listening. 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. Selene  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. 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.


Planet Hugill


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… 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… 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.

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.

…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.

Music Web International – Classical Review

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