April 25, 2017
by Louis Harris
Coming on the heels of Augusta Read Thomas’ recent appointment to head the new Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago will be hosting a concert of her music this Saturday evening. This event brings together the Spektral Quartet and Third Coast Percussion, two Chicago quartets who were nominated for this year’s Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, a prize that Third Coast won for its recording of music by Steve Reich.
A faculty member in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago, Thomas has been a leading fixture of the contemporary art music scene in Chicago for 20 years. Among her many accomplishments, from 1997-2006 she served as the Mead Composer in Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the batons of Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. She was the leading inspiration and chief organizer of last October’s hugely successful Ear Taxi Festival, a six-day event that showcased the music of 88 Chicago composers, 25 local ensembles made up the 350 performers, and the world premiers of 55 new works.
Last month the University of Chicago announced the formation of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. Thomas, who helped organize the Center, was named its first Director. The Center’s mission is to create a collaborative environment where composers, performers, and students can study, hone their skills, and network with one another. A seemingly natural follow-up to the Ear Taxi Festival, the Center is Thomas’ latest effort to foster and further advance contemporary music in Chicago.
Saturday’s program, entitled A Triptych: Earth, Moon, Peace, includes three works performed by the Spektral Quartet and Third Coast Percussion, groups that have a long-standing artistic relationship with Thomas and with each other. The ensembles will perform one work individually; they will then combine forces to perform the only octet ever written for percussion and string quartet.
First on the program will be CHI for String Quartet, a work commissioned by the Spektral Quartet and the Rockefeller Chapel that will receive its world première on Saturday night. Thomas writes that this 4-movement work was inspired by the Chinese concept of CHI, “the energy of life itself, recognized as the balance of Yin and Yang (male and female, positive and negative, electromagnetic energy), which flows through everything in creation.” She also mentions, “The music was composed for the extraordinary spiritual qualities and acoustic properties of Rockefeller Chapel’s grand cathedral space.” The venue for Saturday night’s concert will be the ideal place to hear it.
The second piece, Resounding Earth, was written for Third Coast Percussion and features sounds from over three hundred bells. Third Coast recorded this 4-movement work and released it on CD in 2013. Last on the program is a performance by both ensembles together of Selene, Moon Chariot Rituals. Third Coast Percussion and Spektral Quartet performed the same work during the memorable Saturday night concert at the Ear Taxi Festival. A repeat performance will be a real treat; a recording of them playing Moon Chariot Rituals can be heard on Thomas’ CD from 2016, Of Being Is a Bird.