Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra performs NU alumna’s piece featuring 300 bells


November 16, 2017
by Jane Recker

The Harris Theater stage is 2,025 square feet. On Sunday afternoon, half of that space was taken up by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra. The remaining 1,012 square feet were claimed by the four members of Third Coast Percussion for their 300 assorted bells. The quartet — a Grammy Award-winning, Chicago-based group of Northwestern alumni — was there to perform the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ (Bienen ’87) “Sonorous Earth.”

“Sonorous Earth” is a percussion quartet concerto in four movements. The opening three movements feature different families of bells ranging in size from 3-foot gongs to bells the size of a thumbnail. The first movement is energetic and fanfare-like; the second is an intimate prayer; and the third is playful and capricious, Thomas said. The composition ends with a “resonant and clangorous” climax in which musicians strike every single one of the 300 bells.

“It’s a very complex piece with many different colors,” said Chicago Philharmonic artistic director and conductor Scott Speck. He added that it has been invaluable to have close access to the composer, as it allowed him to ensure he’s crafting the piece in Thomas’ vision. This attention to precision is also demonstrated by the Third Coast members. Thomas said she is consistently impressed by their prowess for nuanced performance, deftly navigating the fine gradations of loudness and softness, and accurately interpreting each note.

The quartet needed a high level of precision as the featured soloists of the percussion quartet concerto — a genre not commonly found in the Western canon. Skidmore said Thomas’ decision to celebrate this genre was a great way to showcase the leading power of percussion and put the piece in a global setting. “In the classical music tradition, percussion has taken a backseat,” said David Skidmore, Third Coast member and Executive Director. “But in so many other traditions all over the world, percussion is at the forefront. You can find percussion in every single culture around the world.

Some of the piece’s bells came from India, Thailand and Japan. Thomas said she hopes she highlighted the interdependence of humanity across all cultures in the show. “To me, this piece is a beautiful metaphor about the interdependence of all of us around the world and the commonalities,” Thomas said. “We’re all human; we shouldn’t be killing each other. This piece is a celebration of that humanity we should all share.”

It’s this global engagement that inspired the piece’s poetic name, too. “That’s why I called it ‘Sonorous Earth,’” she said. “Let’s celebrate all of the sonorousness of this earth and all of the sounds from these bells that mankind has made.”

Read the full feature here.


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