A symphony of 300 bells at the Chicago Philharmonic

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November 13, 2017
by John von Rhein

In separate concerts over the weekend, two similarly named groups, Third Coast Percussion and Third Coast Baroque, reminded audiences of the increasingly vital roles new classical music and early music play in the performing arts life of Chicago.

The quartet of virtuoso percussion players calling themselves Third Coast Percussion has worked on several projects with Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas. None are more ambitious, more grandly scaled or more rewarding to everybody than her “Sonorous Earth,” a quasi-concerto for more than 300 bells (and other resonant pieces of metal) and symphony orchestra. The four-movement work had its world premiere by the Chicago Philharmonic on Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Although “Sonorous Earth” draws some of its musical materials and its movement titles from “Resounding Earth” (a 2012 piece for solo percussion Thomas wrote for the Third Coast group), so greatly has she expanded the concept and structure that it feels like an entirely new work. Here one encounters the tintinnabulations of the earlier piece in a different context. What once felt ritualistic and intimate now is big, bold and public — a joyous affirmation of commonality across world cultures.

Banging away at an exotic array of bells, gongs, chimes, Japanese singing bowls and what-have-you, the Third Coasters conjured an otherworldly carillon as their sounds — now crashing and clangorous, now delicate and shimmering — washed in waves over an orchestra that often mirrored the explosive energy of the four percussionists. Imagine myriad points of light, or multiple showers of shiny metallic objects, flashing across the cosmos, and you get a sense of what this arresting and evocative music sounds like.

Each Third Coast player — David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors — precisely timed his gestures to those of his colleagues and the responsive orchestra under artistic director Scott Speck. The audience awarded the composer and performers a clamorous ovation.


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