Augusta Read Thomas, composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, must know how lucky she is to have Pierre Boulez in her corner. Two winters ago he led the CSO in the debut of a Thomas commission, …Words of the Sea…, and this week he’ll conduct the premiere of another, Orbital Beacons. Boulez’s zeal for new music generates excitement and curiosity even among his players, and his cult following guarantees Thomas receptive audiences. Himself a wunderkind as a composer, Boulez must also be glad to work with a prodigy like Thomas: though she’s only 34 she’s been showered with major prizes and fellowships, including a Guggenheim; she started writing music at age 6, and during her undergraduate years at Northwestern dashed off close to a hundred compositions. The Thomas pieces I’ve heard share a meticulous craftsmanship; it’s hard to find an awkward transition or a dangling note, and she has a knack for blending timbres. Her predilection is for small, impressionistic gestures and shimmering textures, which coalesce into grand sonic displays. But Thomas’s work also betrays the occasional ill-advised deference to her mentors: in …Words of the Sea…, too shapeless and affected to be first-rate, she splashes tone colors too much like her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Bernard Rands. The half-hour Orbital Beacons, a depiction of six constellations, promises more play with texture and nuance, but also physically rearranges its instruments–including contrabassoon, bass marimba, harp, and strings–to produce spatial and antiphonal effects that owe a debt to Stockhausen’s pioneering multiensemble effort Gruppen. Boulez has also programmed Debussy’s Nocturnes and La mer, which in their immersion in sound for its own sake could be considered antecedents of Thomas’s compositions. The women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus will accompany the orchestra. Friday and Saturday, 8 PM (with preconcert talks at 7 PM both days), and Tuesday, 7:30 PM (with preconcert talk at 6:30 PM), Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pierre Boulez uncredited photo; Augusta Read Thomas photo by A.R.T. Musings.