by Geoffrey Larson
It’s always tremendously exciting when we get a premiere recording of American works for orchestra, but this release has me especially enthralled. Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer present an immaculately conceived performance of works by three of our most prominent composers of the moment: Augusta Read Thomas, Nico Muhly, and Andrew Norman.
Augusta Read Thomas’ Eos is subtitled Goddess of the Dawn, a Ballet for Orchestra, and presents a tableau of Greek gods and goddesses. It’s interesting to note her remarks in the liner notes, where she mentions her compositional process involves standing at a drafting table to connect with the feel of dance. The opening movement Dawn is immediately spellbinding. It subtly evokes Copland’s Quiet City at the outset, with its spare textures and timid groups of repeating notes, eschewing the richness of Ravel’s Dawn from Daphnis and Chloe. It doesn’t last long, however, as we are soon taken on a playful journey that is a true concerto for orchestra. Utah Symphony really wows in Augusta’s music: the way challenging runs pass through the entire orchestra with perfect precision and ensemble is truly something for the ears to behold, and the Soundmirror recording team has produced a wonderfully balanced and transparent capture of the performance for Reference Recordings.
Nico Muhly’s Control is also helpfully subtitled, and the Five Landscapes for Orchestra that he explores are all impressionistic representations of Utah’s stunning natural landscape. He mentions oblique references to Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles, and I actually hear a lot of Messiaen in this music, from commanding brass chords that stand like massive pillars of rock to gamelan-like rhythms of pitched percussion. It’s a fascinating work, such a far evolution from Muhly’s earlier minimalist-influenced textures, although this DNA partially forms the rhythmic backbone of Beehive. It’s interesting that the fourth part, Petroglyph and Tobacco, reminds me of Copland’s most muscular, swashbuckling populist works; it’s portraying stone-carving, rock-painting, and a Ute song that was used when begging for tobacco, a distinctly different viewpoint than Copland’s American West.
Andrew Norman’s Switch is a percussion concerto that seems to follow in a creative line from Play, his earlier work that “explores the myriad ways musicians can play with, against, or apart from one another.” In this work, the percussionist appears to control the action of the orchestra like an insane puppeteer, which certain percussion instruments setting off licks one part of the orchestra, and so on. It never ceases to surprise, enthrall, or sound less than tremendously difficult. It’s an incredibly symphonic work that seems to be successful in a purely shock-and-awe way, a work that clearly says “look what a modern orchestra is capable of.” Haydn would have been terrified.