Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Augusta Read Thomas, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence, has earned a rare distinction: the orchestra has premiered two of her commissioned works since late 1996, and the new Ceremonial, debuting this weekend, will bring her total to three. Thomas has been on the fast track for years: now only 35, she started composing at age 6, and her output as an undergraduate at Northwestern displayed her curiosity, discipline, and attention to detail. She wasn’t quite sure of her voice, but since then her mentors–Jacob Druckman at Yale and her husband, Bernard Rands, who teaches at Harvard–have helped her shape her own musical sensibility. She has a taste for poetic images–her two earlier CSO commissions are titled …Words of the Sea… and Orbital Beacons–and for wide-ranging textures, from delicate, luminous interludes to thundering cacophony. She augments Debussy’s impressionism with atonal techniques, and shares Boulez’s penchant for erudite musical aphorisms. She hasn’t yet mastered the long form–Orbital Beacons comes across merely as a series of aural tableaux vivants–but her vignettes, like the Sea Horse Symphony for the Shedd Aquarium, can be surprisingly nourishing. Ceremonial, at just eight minutes, certainly falls into that category. It’ll be the CSO’s curtain-raiser on the new millennium; it opens with a clarinet solo meant to illustrate a quote from Saint Ambrose: “O brightness, bringing light from light.” And since it ends tentatively, with a fade instead of a surge or stinger, it’ll also feel like a prelude to the rest of the program–the Dvorak Cello Concerto, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Daniel Barenboim will conduct. Thursday, January 6, 8 PM, Friday, January 7, 1:30 PM, and Saturday, January 8, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.