November 14, 2017
by Wynne Delacoma
Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater the Chicago Philharmonic partnered with the virtuoso Third Coast Percussion ensemble for the world premiere of Sonorous Earth by Augusta Read Thomas, a former CSO composer-in-residence. A reworking of a chamber piece she wrote a few years ago for the four-member percussion ensemble, it offers bells on steroids.
Filled with racks hung with a dizzying array of bells and gongs, the stage looked like the display floor of a musical instrument store. During most of the 30-minute, four-movement piece, Third Coast percussionists—David Skidmore, Sean Connors, Robert Dillon and Peter Martin—played in front of both the orchestra and conductor Scott Speck. It was obvious, however, that the quartet had absorbed this piece into its very bones. Thanks, perhaps, to mental telepathy, the quartet and orchestra operated as a single, expressively rhythmic unit.
Both the first and final movements were full of exuberant sonic explosions, but it was difficult, on first hearing, to discern their underlying structure. Thomas is an extremely precise composer, not given to simply hurling sound into the air simply because she can. Each of the four movements paid homage to composers important to Thomas, from Lou Harrison to Pierre Boulez. Persistent, off-kilter rhythms in the opening movement evoked Stravinsky. But the most memorable moments were strictly sonic–silver, crystalline strands of high-pitched bells against the dark satin of the rich-toned orchestra, the ear-splitting cacophony of discordant bells sounding at once.
Thomas’s musical architecture was clearer in the second movement (“Prayer”) and the third (”Mantra”). Focused on the serene, pure resonance of Japanese bowls, the second movement’s atmosphere was mystical. Often in works for strong solo ensemble and orchestra, the orchestra is simply a back-up band, offering little beyond rhythmic support for the ensemble in the spotlight. That was never the case with Sonorous Earth, but especially in the second movement the connection between the orchestra and Third Coast Percussion was seamlessly organic. At one point the percussionists sent forth a glowing, luminous chord that the orchestra picked up almost imperceptibly, with the winds and strings vastly expanding the chord’s radiant depth and breadth. In the jaunty third movement, the orchestra was a big-hearted playmate to the high-energy percussion. Like rambunctious boys, its burly brass and blustery double basses repeatedly darted in to interrupt the lighter, sprightly bells.