A Composer Portrait Combining Substance, Brilliance, and Sheer Fun

United StatesUnited States A Portrait of Augusta Read Thomas: Curtis Ensemble 20/21 / Don Liuzzi (conductor), David Ludwig (artistic director), Gould Rehearsal Hall, Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, 23.3.2019. (BJ)

Augusta Read Thomas – Capricci (‘Hummingbird Romance’); Mansueto Tribute (‘Double Helix’); Scat; ‘Loci: Memory Palace’, from Helix Spirals; ‘Triple Marionette’, from Klee Musings; Plea for Peace; Selene: Moon Chariot Rituals

If there is one sin that frequently besets critics (and actually there are a lot more such habits than just one!), it is the judgmental application of a particular set of double standards. The tendency manifests itself in a habit of praising composers we like for ‘establishing a strongly personal voice’, while denigrating those we don’t like for ‘repeating themselves’, and all sorts of eminent composers from Vivaldi by way of Bruckner to Shostakovich have suffered frequently from the second of those Pavlovian critical responses.

The two pieces at the center of this concert — a portrait of Augusta Read Thomas — vividly illustrated the perils of jumping to conclusions in such a judgment. There was much rapid-fire pizzicato — a favorite resource for Thomas — in ‘Loci: Memory Palace’. This was perhaps the strongest piece on the program. Thomas had marshaled her materials to such compelling purpose that when a momentary silence soon after the beginning reappeared just before the end, it conveyed a very real sense of recapitulation — of imminent closure; and to make a silence carry that kind of structural weight takes a good deal of compositional skill. (The most important part of music, Debussy declared, is not in the notes but in the space between them.)

Then, after intermission, ‘Triple Marionette’ began with a similar volley of rapid pizzicatos, suggesting that we were about to be offered a re-run of ‘Loci’ — but only for a moment, for it almost immediately became clear that while Thomas was speaking the same language in both pieces, she was saying quite different things, so that ‘repeating herself’ would be a completely misleading comment; and again, being able to repeat oneself while saying new things in a consistently personal voice may be regarded as a mark of class among composers.

It is interesting, by the way, to notice a taste for geometric images — such as Double Helix and Helix Spirals — among Thomas’s chosen titles. This brought to mind a similar feature in the works of that great 20th-century master Andrzej Panufnik. But the two composers’ music could hardly differ more sharply, and whereas Panufnik’s recourse to such images tended to evince philosophical, even mystical, preoccupations, it seems to me that for Thomas their interest lies more in their suggestion of specific formal and technical ideas.

Saluting Thomas’s tenure as Curtis’s 2018-2019 composer-in-residence, the evening served as a confirmation of the high standards reached at this venerable institution in the fields of both composition and performance. The first six pieces — even the least ambitious of them expertly scored, arresting in invention, and pithy in expressive character — were done with a panache that evidenced David Ludwig’s meticulous preparation of Curtis Ensemble 20/21, as well as the rich vein of individual talent that the school continues to attract; and under Don Liuzzi’s fluent direction the substantial closing work was brilliantly played by four of his percussion students and the strings of the Vera Quartet.

Bernard Jacobson

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