Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra performs NU alumna’s piece featuring 300 bells


Source: Anthony Barlich

Augusta Read Thomas premiered her latest composition, “Sonorous Earth,” at the Harris Theater. Her piece was performed by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and Third Coast Percussion, a Grammy Award-winning group of NU alumni.

Jane Recker, Assistant A&E Editor


The Harris Theater stage is 2,025 square feet. On Sunday afternoon, half of that space was taken up by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra. The remaining 1,012 square feet were claimed by the four members of Third Coast Percussion for their 300 assorted bells.

The quartet — a Grammy Award-winning, Chicago-based group of Northwestern alumni — was there to perform the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ (Bienen ’87) “Sonorous Earth.” The composition was one of three pieces played by the Philharmonic on Sunday, including Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.”

Philharmonic artistic director and conductor Scott Speck said Tower’s piece was particularly salient for this occasion, acting as an homage to a “particularly uncommon woman” whose work was featured in the concert. He was referring to Thomas, whom he described as “one of the greatest composers of our generation.”

Thomas has had a prolific compositional career — with more than 40 orchestral pieces under her belt — and has worked with Third Coast before on pieces of hers like “Resounding Earth,” which Speck credits as the impetus for her latest composition.

“Sonorous Earth” is a percussion quartet concerto in four movements. The opening three movements feature different families of bells ranging in size from 3-foot gongs to bells the size of a thumbnail. The first movement is energetic and fanfare-like; the second is an intimate prayer; and the third is playful and capricious, Thomas said. The composition ends with a “resonant and clangorous” climax in which musicians strike every single one of the 300 bells.

David Skidmore (Bienen ’05), a member of Third Coast, said the final movement is very demanding due to the athleticism and precision needed to hit the right instrument at the right time.

“I might be running across the stage to get to a Japanese prayer bowl and I have to hit it at just the right time to coordinate with a flute player that’s 50 feet away,” he said.

Thomas described the piece as unique, as “there’s literally no other piece on the planet that incorporates 300 bells.” Thomas said she’s always been fascinated with bells because they generate two sounds: one that comes from actually striking the bell, and another from the ringing that lingers long after.

“It’s all about letting these beautiful instruments, many used in spiritual contexts, to beautifully ring back in the silence on top of and underneath each other,” Thomas said.

Speck said he loved working with Thomas — whom he affectionately calls “Gusty” — on this world premiere, and that the piece has challenged him as an artist.

“It’s a very complex piece with many different colors, so there are times when I give a cue where, simultaneously, the trumpet is playing pianissimo and the strings are playing fortissimo,” he said.

Luckily, Thomas has been at every rehearsal to help address some of those challenges, Speck said. He added that it has been invaluable to have close access to the composer, as it allowed him to ensure he’s crafting the piece in Thomas’ vision.

This attention to precision is also demonstrated by the Third Coast members, Thomas said. She said she is consistently impressed by their prowess for nuanced performance, deftly navigating the fine gradations of loudness and softness, and accurately interpreting each note.

The quartet needed a high level of precision as the featured soloists of the percussion quartet concerto — a genre not commonly found in the Western canon. Skidmore said Thomas’ decision to celebrate this genre was a great way to showcase the leading power of percussion and put the piece in a global setting.

“In the classical music tradition, percussion has taken a backseat,” Skidmore said. “But in so many other traditions all over the world, percussion is at the forefront. You can find percussion in every single culture around the world.”

That sentiment is reflected in the diverse assortment of bells used in the piece, as Thomas said she attempted to represent many different cultures and regions.

Some of the piece’s bells came from India, Thailand and Japan. Thomas said she hopes she highlighted the interdependence of humanity across all cultures in the show.

She added that the cultural significance of bells was an important aspect of the piece, serving as an inspiration for her compositional decisions.

“To me, this piece is a beautiful metaphor about the interdependence of all of us around the world and the commonalities,” Thomas said. “We’re all human; we shouldn’t be killing each other. This piece is a celebration of that humanity we should all share.”

It’s this global engagement that inspired the piece’s poetic name, too.

“That’s why I called it ‘Sonorous Earth,’” she said. “Let’s celebrate all of the sonorousness of this earth and all of the sounds from these bells that mankind has made.”

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