Experimental, prolific, and distinguished, the American composer and revered professor at the University of Chicago Augusta Read Thomas also deserves note as the longest-serving Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (for conductors Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez between 1997 and 2006). Those lucky enough to go to the BSO this week will have experienced the American premiere of her 13-minute gem Dance Foldings, based on her interpretations of cell biology and sound. The audience much enjoyed the composer’s brief on-stage comments. BBC Radio 3 commissioned the work to “reflect the arts and sciences as they are now” and to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Royal Albert Hall in London; Dance Folding premiered there this past August. The composer notes that the manner in which scientists, physician-scientists and engineers think in their labs and clinics engenders exploration in sound—resonance, balance and kinetics inform her concept.
Indeed Thomas embraces ways to explain signal aspects of life. Dance Foldings mimics the assembly and conformation of proteins, which take place as they emerge from the “factory” in which they form (the endoplasmic reticulum) and are subsequently processed. Each cell of our bodies is dynamic, full of movement, and, as the composer notes, such “metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, forms and images” inspire and even facilitate translation to sound.
The music of Dance Foldings wafted bold and colorful, combinatorial—with percussion ensemble, big band and classicism—and hit-you-in-the-head and subtle aspects— organic, as its inspirations. A syncopated introduction with percussion, piano and plucked strings rivets attention at the start (and reappears throughout). Various pitches and code-like phrases intimate foldings in various portions of the work, along with other-worldly wind sounds. The composer’s sketches use the adjective kaleidoscopic, which it is.
This premiere revealed Dance Foldings as an entrancing and loving effort to explain cell biology as sound. On her website (and in the BSO Program notes), the composer provides drawings of how she views the work, which, she suggests, would optimally be presented with dancers. I cannot wait to experience that version!
Over the nearly two decades in which he worked on it, Liszt often referred to his Piano Concerto No. 2 as a Concerto symphonique. In its ultimate form, Liszt’s second provides a workout for both pianist and orchestra, and perhaps for the audience as well. French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet gave the work with its interrelated motifs in a single monumental movement an almost athletic performance, clearly enjoying himself. And Strasbourg-born principal cellist Blaise Déjardin executed the lyrical cello solos with panache. Divided into six or so sections—depending on how one counts—the concerto combines regal bearing, force and beauty. And it can come sometimes across as bombastic. Thibaudet’s entrance was suitably subtle for this concerto, which begins quietly. And his glittering technique fully equips him to navigate the Liszt’s challenges.
No doubt with two such bravura works before the pause—this time a full intermission, despite Omicron; those making the program hoped that a substantive Beethoven symphony would keep the audience engaged. Some had decamped at the pause; others, looking for something familiar played well, stayed. It was worth it.
Nelsons and the orchestra conveyed the supposedly “lighter” 4th with its misterioso beginning Adagio followed by sprightly Allegro, with well honed, if perhaps a bit louder-than-expected perfection. The second movement, a slow Rondo labeled Adagio, with a few syncopated aspects, sounds as if written earlier than one might expect, perhaps the ghost of Haydn flitting about, delighted. The third movement with its unusual minuet seemed nonetheless familiar, and the fourth Allegro ma non troppo filled the hall as an old friend.
In all a memorable evening, maybe even worth going twice if there are still tickets for Saturday night or Sunday.