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The Essence of a Composer Emerges

Augustus Read Thomas' works are in demand. Why? Because part of her is 'completely impassioned.'

March 19, 2000|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles is a Times staff writer

Which composer can boast performances by the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony and more?

Beethoven? Sure.

Brahms? Of course.

Tchaikovsky? You gotta be kidding.

Augusta Read Thomas?

Who?

Augusta Read Thomas.

A native New Yorker, Thomas, 35, has been composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony for the past three years and is widely recognized as a rising star among contemporary composers.

Conductors ranging from Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Seiji Ozawa and Mstislav Rostropovich to Hans Vonk, Gerard Schwarz, Dennis Russell Davies and half a dozen others have programmed her works.

Their interest doesn't surprise her.

"There's a side of me that's completely impassioned," Thomas said in a recent interview from her home in Boston. "You can hear that in the music."

And you can see if you hear it in her latest work, "Invocations," which will get its first Southern California outing Tuesday. The 12-minute work was commissioned by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival for the Miami String Quartet, which will play the world premiere today in Santa Fe. Tuesday, the Miami Quartet will play it on a concert sponsored by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, in Irvine.

"If someone asks for a piece, I immediately start hearing things," Thomas said. "My ears focus immediately. I don't need any outside stimulation."

Thomas describes her music as chromatic--using all 12 tones of a scale--but adds that "it's music that's right there in the foreground. It reaches out and grabs you and insists you listen."

"Invocations" consists of two contrasting movements. The first starts with "an unfolding, self-generating solo violin line like an electric sparkler that activates everything around it," Thomas said.

The second is "more grounded and down to earth, more Brahmsian."

She gives most of her works titles that are more suggestive than specifically explanatory. "This piece has some spiritual overtones, but not anything necessarily religious," she said. "You hear the piece reaching for something, yearning, surging, trying to express something."

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The 10th child in an artistic family, Read got her of-another-era name because "by the time they got to me, they ran out of names," she said. "They decided to call me after my grandfather, Augustus. Read is my grandmother's maiden name."

She was always attracted to music.

"I remember lying under the piano when my mother played. I was attracted to it like a magnet," she said.

Even so, she wound up focusing on the trumpet.

"I became quite accomplished," she said. "I played it for 13 years. I was very dedicated to it. I practiced all the time."

She started as a trumpet major at Northwestern University, outside Chicago, but switched to composition in her junior year.

"It was a natural thing. I had been composing all the time."

After graduating from Northwestern, she went on to study at Yale University and at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she received the honorary degree of Associate of the Royal Academy seven years after graduating.

In 1990, she began teaching at the Eastman School of Music and received tenure there after only three years of teaching.

Recent works for the Chicago Symphony include "Words of the Sea," a Concerto for Orchestra, subtitled "Orbital Beacons" (Boulez conducted the premieres in 1966 and 1998, respectively), and "Ceremonial" (Barenboim conducted the premiere in January).

Critics have greeted her works with enthusiasm.

" 'Words of the Sea' [is] a vibrant series of aquatic images that had no difficulty standing alongside favorite pieces by Barber and Prokofiev," wrote Donald Rosenberg in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Thomas' music "fairly explodes with an extroverted boldness of utterance audiences and musicians alike find challenging yet immediate," wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune.

Composition tends to come easily for her--but in bursts.

"Sometimes I write 40 bars, just write them down basically as they come to me. They sort of write themselves through me. Then I get to bar 41 and will revise that 40 to 50 times, ripping it up, starting over, finding ways to integrate it with the others.

"Some sections drive me nuts. I can't sleep. I think about it one way, then another. It's interesting how that happens.

"I'm a complete insomniac anyway. I'm writing music all the time. I can't stop it in my head. Sometimes I watch CNN all night so that I hear another voice. I can't stop my head from going 'round and around."

Once a work is finished, however, she rarely goes back to revise it.

"Changing things is like unraveling a scarf. My pieces are very integrated. If I change X, I'll have to change J, L, M and P. They're all connected.

"Revising in that way is more torturous. It doesn't fit the whole gestalt. I'm trying to seek a music that gets that gestalt right, which is very, very hard. I may never achieve that."

Whether achieving it or not, she has few complaints about being a composer in America today.

"I think this is a good time for a composer, especially when I think about what Bartok had to suffer through, or what many composers had to suffer through," she said.

"This is a lucky time for us. If you're willing to work hard and focus on writing good music of quality that's personal and honest, you can make a living. In that sense, I'm an optimist."

*

"INVOCATIONS," West Coast premiere, featuring musicians of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (and also music by Haydn, Clara Schumann and Mendelssohn), Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Date: Tuesday at 8 p.m. Prices: $17 to $28. Phone: (949) 854-4646.

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