Augusta Read Thomas compares her ‘Brio’ to a burst of positive energy

Jason Smith

Though she began as a brass musician, composer Augusta Read Thomas loves the strings. “I’ve been writing for strings my whole life and find endless inspiration here because there is so much expressiveness, humanity and singing that comes straight through the instrument,” she said. “It’s just natural for me to write for strings, even though my own instrument is the trumpet. My husband tells me I have a ‘string soul.’ ” 

An example of her facility for strings is Brio (2018), which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform in concerts May 19-22, under violinist-turned-conductor Karina Canellakis (in her CSO podium debut). 

Her fondness for counterpoint, compound melody and harmony also attracts Thomas to strings. "A solo violin can be like an orchestra in a certain way,” she said in an interview with Strings magazine. “Strings can be flexible and sonorous in so many different dimensions that they’re a natural fit with my musical ideas. I like music that is multidimensional.”

Brio, a commission by the Des Moines Symphony, is dedicated to Iowa native and Chicago resident Carolyn (Kay) Bucksbaum, arts patron, philanthropist and CSO trustee. Her son and daughter, John Bucksbaum and Ann Bucksbaum Friedman, commissioned the work as a gift.

In her program note, Thomas observed: “Kay Bucksbaum is radiant, elegant, brilliant, expressive, graceful, fun, beautiful, generous, sophisticated and positive. I am humbled by this opportunity to compose an orchestral work in her honor. Webster’s Dictionary definition of the noun brio reads in part: ‘Let’s give this celebration the brio it deserves! — vigor, vivacity, gusto, verve, zest, enthusiasm, vitality, dynamism, animation, spirit, energy; informal pep, vim, get up and go.’

Thomas, the CSO’s composer-in-residence from 1997 to 2006, added, “I care about craft, clarity and passion. My works are organic and at every level, concerned with transformations and connections. The carefully sculpted musical materials of Brio are agile and energized, and their flexibility allows a way to braid harmonic, rhythmic and contrapuntal elements that are constantly transformed — at times whimsical and light, at times jazzy, at times layered and reverberating.

“Across Brio’s 11-minute duration, it unfolds a labyrinth of musical interrelationships and connections that showcase the musicians of the Des Moines Symphony in a virtuosic display of rhythmic agility, counterpoint, skill, energy, dynamic range, clarity and majesty. Throughout the kaleidoscopic journey, the work passes through many lively and colorful episodes and via an extended, gradual crescendo, reaches a full-throttle, sparkling intensity — imagine a coiled spring releasing its energy to continuously propel the musical discourse. Vivid, clangorous, brassy and blazing, Brio culminates in music of enthusiastic, intrepid — almost Stravinsky-like — spirits while never losing its sense of dance, caprice and effervescence.

“Music’s eternal quality is its capacity for change, transformation and renewal. No one composer, musical style, school of thought, technical practice or historical period can claim a monopoly on music’s truths. Commissioning new art is leap of faith! The commissioner does not know what they will receive. I feel profoundly fortunate for the investments made by Ann, John, Joe and the orchestra’s musicians in my work, and I devoted my strongest, most focused efforts to composing Brio in honor of Kay.”

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