Augusta Read Thomas: Radiant Circles
Composed in 2010 that came from a commission by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Radiant Circles is a celestial orchestral work. At the time of composition, Thomas was Composer-in-Residence at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, so she got to know the musicians well. This is certainly heard in Radiant Circles, which pushes players to their limits, whilst also showcasing the orchestra at their best. The idea of the piece was to achieve a musical glow that resembles a light with a radiant circle around it.
The poetic title is explained in Carol Wright’s programme note for the work:
“Radiant Circles, the title, has astral overtones, suggesting the rotation of stars and the sun, the circling of celestial bodies. The composer has built the piece so that waves of sound follow one another, closing in on themselves and starting again, the sound becoming circular in a way.”
Radiant Circles has been described as “a 12-minute crescendo that breathes, dips and ebbs along the journey.” This intriguing work opens with a sparkling chime for the percussion, which is then emulated by the piccolo flute. The strings, all structures in their high harmonics, give that ethereal feel from the very beginning. There is a sense of suspension like the music is floating during this introduction. Bell chimes, representing the stars, and Thomas’ build up of textures becomes more apparent.
The dissonant swell is mysterious and the brass decorations are unusual and unexpected. The build up of brass voices is significant as the middle part of Radiant Circles features the brass section. As the resonant circles begin to spin, the tempo is picked up a fraction. The percussion also make themselves known here, with the bold timpani roles accompanying the inevitable brass fanfare that ensues. The percussion add a new dimension to the music, with their varying timbres adding darkness and light to the score.
Radiant Circles is made up of clever layering, crescendos and cross-fades, which creates a truly magical experience for the listener. The intensity is high throughout the whole of the piece, with Thomas also describing the work as “like lace, it’s very precise.” The work is unsuspecting and there is a new surprise around each corner. Thomas’ bold writing makes for exciting listening as the orchestra are stretched out of their comfort zones in an ingenious manner.
Ⓒ Alex Burns