As one of the first American women to achieve international prominence in composition, Augusta Read Thomas has watched firsthand the transition from being called one of America’s best women composers to being acknowledged as “one of the most distinctive and rewarding U.S. composers” (The Guardian) who writes “precisely calibrated music of refined beauty” that is “in the repertory of several A-list players and ensembles” (The Boston Globe). She and other prominent women, both in the United States and around the world, have guided us to a point where gender has all but ceased to matter.
Thomas’s meticulously structured, aurally appealing music has put her at the forefront of her generation—“a new cohort of composers,” as Justin Davidson wrote in Newsday, “who share with their modernist predecessors a particular seriousness and passion, an utter lack of irony and, above all, a belief that profound music requires an active mind to be properly heard, not just a passive set of ears.” Among those who have championed her works are conductors Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Lorin Maazel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Seiji Ozawa. Her published compositions have been performed by most major orchestras in America and many in Europe. She has exerted a special force in Chicago, where from 1997 to 2006 she was the Chicago Symphony’s longest-serving composer in residence and where she currently serves as university professor at the University of Chicago. In 2009 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Thomas studied music from an early age, focusing on piano and trumpet at Northwestern University, where she became the school’s first composition major. Later she studied with Jacob Druckman at Yale (who helped her gain a peerless mastery of orchestral sound) and with Paul Patterson and others at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She also absorbed, perhaps, some of the punchy playfulness of Oliver Knussen, with whom she studied at the Tanglewood Music Center.
Brio was commissioned by the Des Moines Symphony for Carolyn (“Kay”) Bucksbaum, a prominent Iowa arts lover and philanthropist. Thomas has described Bucksbaum as “radiant, elegant, brilliant, expressive, graceful, fun, beautiful, generous, sophisticated, and positive,” and wrote that she has tried to capture these qualities in Brio. “The Webster’s Dictionary definition of the noun brio reads, in part: ‘Let’s give this celebration the brio it deserves!’” Thomas wrote. “The work passes through many lively and colorful episodes and, via an extended, gradual crescendo, reaches a full-throttle, sparkling intensity. … Vivid, clangorous, brassy, and blazing, Brio culminates in music of enthusiastic, intrepid (almost Stravinsky-like) spirits while never losing its sense of dance, caprice, and effervescence.”
11 minutes, 1 movement
Most of the famous old Russians we love from the world of literature, art, and music were part of an ancient aristocracy. They might have had democratic ideals in their bones, but the truth is that composers from Glinka to Stravinsky had privileged access to university and conservatory training. Shortly after 1900, as we know, this lifestyle began to fall apart, as artists and others had their lives turned upside-down by one of the most tumultuous revolutions in recorded history. The well-situated Rachmaninoff saw things becoming untenable early on: In 1906 he resigned his position as conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre to settle in Dresden, though for a while he still had access to his family’s country estate at Ivanovka. In 1909, when he composed his Third Piano Concerto, he was already sensing that profound changes were in store for his homeland.
By this time he was already a fairly famous pianist and composer, and word of his keyboard virtuosity had reached as far as America’s shores. Invited to make his first American tour that winter, he took advantage of the solitude of Ivanovka to prepare the new concerto for his first appearances on these shores. While his miraculous Second Concerto had been concentrated in expression and solid, even strict, in construction, the Third was so lavishly expansive as to be almost flamboyant. Was the composer perhaps “stretching his artistic legs,” emboldened to write a suitably extroverted calling-card in preparation for his first trip to brash, raucous America? (America would, in fact, embrace Rachmaninoff warmly, and he would eventually settle here at the end of World War I, when it became clear he would never see Russia again.)
Today the Third Concerto, which the composer performed first in November 1909 with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra, is not just the ultimate testing ground for a soloist’s musical and intellectual prowess. It is one of the most richly rewarding compositions in the orchestral repertoire. It consists of three large-scale movements, the first beginning with an arrestingly simple tune that has been likened to Russian hymnody. The orchestral texture is thick but it leaves strategically transparent passages for the piano to be heard; the movement ends with a dazzling cadenza. The mournful Adagio features a fleet, light-hearted second section, which leads into the bracingly virtuosic march: A buildup of tension leads to an explosive finale of cadenzas and cymbal crashes.
39 minutes, 3 movements
Creativity cannot always be corralled: Sometimes even the most disciplined artist may be guided by forces that not even he or she fully understands. When Sergei Diaghilev visited Stravinsky in Switzerland in the summer of 1910, the impresario was annoyed to find that, instead of progressing on the score he was supposed to be writing for the Ballets Russes (The Rite of Spring), the composer was engrossed in another piece. Fearing that Rite was going be a major undertaking (which it ultimately was), Stravinsky had been procrastinating at the keyboard, one could say, doodling with bitonal chords and fantastic roulades. The collaborators didn’t fully realize it at the time, but this was Petrushka in the making.
When Stravinsky played parts of it for Diaghilev, the latter suggested that he turn the music into a ballet. With the aid of the artistcritic Alexandre Benois, Diaghilev and Stravinsky crafted a scenario in which Petrushka—the mischievous, Harlequin-like figure of Russian folklore—is a puppet who comes to life and irritates everyone around him. Completing the music in early 1911, Stravinsky gave the work to Michel Fokine who, though not a huge fan of the music, created striking choreography. Vaslav Nijinsky danced the title role in the work’s premiere on June 11 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, with Pierre Monteux conducting. The musical language and the enigmatic choreographic style made a deep impression, somewhat to the surprise of the creators. In 1947, Stravinsky rewrote the score for a slightly smaller orchestra, both to re-establish copyright and to achieve better clarity of texture in some passages.
Petrushka is divided into four scenes. The First Tableau depicts the Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg in the early 19th century, with dances by various groups of villagers and circus performers. A Show-Master produces a small theater containing three puppets, and as he plays the flute, the dolls come to life and begin dancing. The Second Tableau takes place in Petrushka’s room (or cell), where the boy rails against his dependence upon the Master’s will.
In the Third Tableau, the Ballerina visits the sinister rival puppet, the Moor, whom she favors. She dances a sort of crooked waltz but is interrupted when Petrushka bursts in and throws a jealous fit. The Fourth Tableau returns to the Fair, and in the midst of another array of dances the puppets come to life again. The Moor chases Petrushka and strikes him down, exiting with the Ballerina as the boy dies. The Master assures the public that Petrushka is only a doll, but in a final surprise Petrushka’s “ghost” appears on the roof, mockingly suggesting that he had perhaps indeed come to life.
34 minutes, 4 tableaux