April 22, 2018
by Terry McQuilkin
“…a kaleidoscope of orchestral tone color…”
Concertgoers with sharp memories recall that the Eugene Symphony’s current subscription season opened in September with a short, colorful work by American composer Augusta Read Thomas. The composer returned to Eugene last week for a second residency that culminated Thursday with the West Coast premiere of a full-length work co-commissioned by the Eugene Symphony and the Chicago Philharmonic.
Thomas’ Sonorous Earth is a 32-minute concerto, not for one instrument, but for 300.
Three hundred bells, that is, precisely arrayed on racks, tables and the floor, played by Third Coast Percussion, a stunningly virtuosic quartet based in the Chicago area. Employing Chinese gongs, Burma spinning bells and dozens more, Sonorous Earth, the composer’s website suggests, can be “imagined as a United-Nations-of-Resonances.”
The soloists began each movement by introducing the musical motives and bell sounds central to that movement. The first and third movements began relatively slowly and softly, allowing the listener to bathe in the beauty of each bell’s timbre.
When the orchestra joined in and tempos picked up, melodic threads built on semiquavers were traded quickly from one instrument to the next, resulting in a kind of kaleidoscope of orchestral tone color.
Kudos to music director Francesco Lecce-Chong and the members of the orchestra, who delivered the careening and perilously syncopated lines with energy and (save for a few dicey moments in the third movement) an impressive degree of ensemble precision.
The serene second movement proved the most satisfying for this listener. Using an array of 26 prayer bells (or rin bells) and 12 crotales, soloists David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors imparted a sense of timelessness, as the composer’s wordless poetry unfolded peacefully.
In the final half-minute, the musicians used a stirring motion on the edge of each rin bell to produce a constant, ethereal ringing sound.
The last movement employed every bell on stage, and Third Coast’s frenzied playing on everything metallic in sight produced not so much a “United-Nations-of-Resonances,” as a musical Tower of Babel, as each bell’s resonance was eclipsed by the tintinnabulation of the next. Although the orchestra reiterated a series of eight dissonant “pillar chords” multiple times, imparting a modicum of unity, the dramatic arc didn’t seem to be headed anywhere in particular, until the soloists moved to the front of the stage and simultaneously struck tubular chimes, as if to place the words “The End” on screen.
Read the full concert review here.