Interview with Augusta Read Thomas

The Boston Symphony Orchestra will perform Augusta Read Thomas’ Helios Choros II on October 15, 16, 17, and 20. I wanted to make sure to note this exciting and important event, so I asked Prof. Thomas if I could interview her for this blog, and she was kind enough to agree. So here is our phone interview from Sept. 23.

Liane Curtis: I’ve been reading about the piece, Helios Choros, which is a triptych, and the very unusual way that four different orchestras came together to commission it – how did Boston and the LSO come together to commission the part (Part II) that we’ll be hearing in Boston?

Augusta Read Thomas: Essentially the London Symphony had offered me this commission at the same time as Dallas and Paris, and I proposed to the three of them that I would make one large piece, instead of three 15 minute works.

The co-commission with Boston came about because we were seeking additional sponsorship — additional funding for the piece — to make it viable to create the work and also for all the expense of the engraving and the copying, and the parts and all of that. And the Boston Symphony was happy to be a co-commissioner.

And this also had the wonderful effect, that that piece gets to have two performances, with one in my own country. Because when you do a big piece for somewhere else, then it can take years to get it done in your own country. This was so much nicer to know that we had a USA premiere.

LC: So, did someone from London say why don’t we call up Boston and ask them?

A.R. Thomas: Well, very often orchestras co-commission, all over the place, sometimes there are three commissioners or four; there have been consortiums of 15, so orchestras are very used to working with one another. And it makes it much more feasible for an orchestra to commission a piece if they have co-sponsors. And it’s better for the piece because it gets more than one performance. It’s better for the private people who donate for these things because “their” piece gets to have more of a life. So it’s basically a fairly normal format. Either the publisher can contact the orchestra, or the orchestras can call each other, or the composer can coordinate, it happens different ways with different organizations and different projects. But the short of it is, it’s a fairly common procedure.

LC: You’re going to be here for the Boston performances and the rehearsals?

A.R. Thomas: Yes I’ll be in town for eleven days, for all the rehearsal and all the concerts, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and the following Tuesday. I’m really excited, as you can probably imagine – I wish it was tomorrow!

LC: And you were there in London, so you’ve heard it before.

A.R. Thomas: I did, yes.

LC: With different the orchestras, do you write with them in mind? They have different musicians and sounds, does that affect the writing?

A.R. Thomas: To a certain extent. I listen to recordings of the orchestras for whom I’m writing , and try to get to understand their sound, and I usually speak to the conductor, and ask if there is any special player they would like featured in a solo, or something special to take care of in the commission. So in that sense I try to tailor-make the pieces.

But on the other hand, these works are published by G. Schirmer; they’ll be around years and years after I’m long dead! So one hopes that any orchestra could play it. So a little bit of tailor-making it, and on the other hand, just making an orchestral piece that works.

In this particular instance, beca
use there are so many orchestras involved and because it is such a big piece, it just has to work on its own.

LC: I was reading about the idea you have for a staging, as a ballet, has there been any discussion of getting the whole piece performed and getting it staged?

A.R. Thomas: Not at this point. The Boston performance brings to a close the original commissioners – so it can’t be played as a whole piece until all the original people have done their part, so as of Oct. 22 the piece is open and available for others to play. At that point what I want to do is string together the three CDs, of three different concerts, even though they will be different volumes and different audience noise, and different concert halls, but to string it together into one huge arch, and so we’ll have a document of the whole piece. The musical score, the book , is already one big piece. It’s already bound up as one whole composition, so we just need the CD recording to match it, and my hope is, in late October to send out that CD, and the score, and I have drawn out several maps of the piece, and to send all that to choreographers and orchestras.

My first hope is that some orchestra will play the whole piece. It’s about 40 minutes long. SO in the scheme of a Tchaikovsky symphony or a Mahler Symphony, it’s short! It’s definitely a do-able piece! It’s not an hour and a half. But on the other hand, you need an orchestra to really commit, because to learn a brand-new 40-minute-piece is a lot to do. My first hope is that someone will play the whole piece, and my next hope is that it will be played with dancers. One of the pieces that I’ve loved my entire life, along with everyone else in the entire world, is The Rite of Spring. I like the idea of – let me put it this way, when I turned 40 and I had these commission offers, I thought, why not make something REALLY BIG. What was it [Daniel] Burnham said, “make no little plans,” so build a huge ballet for large orchestra! It’s not just a piece that you play as an overture and that’s it.

I’m glad I did, now that it’s built, it was a lot of work, an immense amount of work. … One needs a collaborator that appreciates the scope of it, a dance company that wants to make a statement, that wants to do a big piece. So, I don’t know if anyone will ever want to do it – I hope so! I think the idea of the dance is also very clear in the music. I’ve written several works for dancers, so this not a new thing for me, it goes way back in terms of my spirit of making pieces for dance. I think that, for instance, when you listen to The Rite of Spring or other ballet works, let’s say by Tchaikovsky, there are often compartments, there will by some music that is florid, and then it’s almost like the channel changes and you have music that’s majestic, and then it’s march-like, and then something else — maybe it’s a funeral march, depending on what’s going on in the ballet.

So when we listen to The Rite of Spring or other Stravinsky ballets, like Petrushka, we hear them with a story in mind, and I think a sense of these character shifts, and an enormous amount of energy and flow and switch-on-a-dime kind of music — that’s all in THIS piece. Helios Choros II is not just a 20-minute slow movement, it’s much more varied and characterized with flair and color. I’m glad you’re going to hear it!

LC: I saw you have a scenario for Helios Choros as a ballet, but it doesn’t spell out a whole lot for a dance producer.

ART: Well the whole image of this Greek myth, of Helios driving his chariot across the sky, that can be very clearly done with dance. And the idea of incorporating all kinds of other rituals that we go through – I was purposefully not saying which ones I would necessarily do, because I think that any collaborator who is going to take this piece on should have the freedom to imagine all the different possibilities with the different characters of music, so I kind of purposefully left it open. But for an audience, it is going to be a big ritual, this piece.

LC : You’ve had a relationship with the BSO, through Tanglewood, for a long time, but this is the first time that they’ve done a piece of yours, is that right?

ART: The Boston Symphony did a very short work of mine, six minutes, maybe, in duration, for cello and small orchestra, which Mstistlav Rostropovich wanted to do, for his 70th birthday. [1997 — Chanson for cello and orchestra] And Slava asked me to write him a short little piece, I was not paid for it, it was not a commission, it was more like a birthday gift. And he played it with the Boston Symphony, but it was a really minor, six-minute thing. So yes, they’ve played a piece of mine, but this is really the first REAL piece. So I’m really delighted to finally work with them on something substantial.

LC: At Tanglewood, you run into musicians, I guess you’re part of the …

ART: I’m on the faculty, and this past year I ran the new music festival. So I do see the musicians, and I do know them and I go to their concerts ALL the time, I’ve heard the orchestra hundreds of times in concert. I think it’s a fantastic orchestra, beautiful, very talented individually and collectively. So I am really honored to finally get to work with them.

LC: I don’t know if you know that the BSO hasn’t performed works by many women in recent years. They’ve done a few – Gubaidulina, Musgrave, Saariaho, and Judith Weir. But you’re the first American woman in recent years.

And with these statistics, Chicago winds up having a really good record on women composers , because of you being a Composer-in-Residence, and also, before that, Shulamit Ran. So when you are looking at this kind of data, it makes things look very different, and I just wondered if you had any feelings about that. Does it reflect any difference in climate of the two orchestras, or is it just a statistic?

ART: I wouldn’t really be able to comment, I worked so hard for the Chicago Symphony for a decade, and I’m really proud of all the pieces that I made for them, and all the projects, starting the “Music Now” chamber music series, all the things I did with them, I would just say something positive about that experience. It was so great to get to know an orchestra intimately and to get to write a lot for them, and to know all the players personally, and I live literally –LITERALLY – next door to the symphony, I can be from my house to the hall in one minute, so I was really a composer IN RESIDENCE – to put it mildly! So I had a really great experience there.

One general point is, there are those who say that – several people have written this – that my work has a large European influence. In other words, that it’s clear that I know the music from England and Rome and Paris. And it’s also clear, when you read my resume, that my work is being played a lot in Europe. Like recent commissions and performances from the Berlin Philharmonic, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Orchestre de Paris, NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg, London Symphony, BBC Proms …

LC: Wow, yes, those are major venues. So you are one of the few American women who have such an international stature?

ART: Yes, but while I feel very European in a sense, on the other hand, I live in the middle of America [Chicago], and I’ve spent my life listening to Jazz. So clearly I AM an American. But I don’t really fit into any of the stylistic categories that people tend to think of as typically American contemporary music. I hope it’s my own unique voice, with European influences, but personalized. So anyway, that’s a long answer to your question.

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See the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s website for more information about these concerts, and here is Augusta Read Thomas’ website.