The Kennedy Center

Galaxy Dances

About the Work

Augusta Thomas Composer: Augusta Read Thomas
© Augusta Reed Thomas

This new work, composed last year under a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra supported by a grant from Leonard and Elaine Silverstein in honor of Mstislav Rostropovich, was composed last year, and is receiving its world premiere performances in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated ?with admiration and gratitude to Slava, Leonard and Elaine Silverstein, Uli Bader and the National Symphony Orchestra,? calls for piccolo, 3 flutes. 2 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, crotales, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, small and large triangles, claves, 2 suspended cymbals, extra-large tam-tam, 2 conga drums, 2 bongos, extra-large bass drum, piano, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 12 minutes.

Galaxy Dances is the fifth work by Augusta Read Thomas to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, the third introduced into the orchestra's repertory by Mstislav Rostropovich, and the third commissioned and given its world premiere by the NSO. Even before Mr. Rostropovich conducted the premiere of Miss Thomas's Air and Angels (her Symphony No. 1, a Hechinger commission) here in September 1992, earlier works of hers had been commissioned and introduced by both the New York Philharmonic the Philadelphia Orchestra?and she was then only 28 years old. Eight months later (May 1993) Mr. Rostropovich conducted the premiere of Miss Thomas's Ancient Chimes at the Evian Festival in France, and he subsequently performed that work with the NSO, both in this hall and on tour in Russia. (Mr. Rostropovich also conducted the premiere of Miss Thomas's chamber opera Ligeia at Evian, in 1994.) In October 1995 George Manahan conducted the orchestra in the premiere of Manifesto, one of the ?Hechinger fanfares? commissioned for that season's observance of the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy Center, and in March 2001 Leonard Slatkin conducted Orbital Beacons , one of the works Miss Thomas has written as composer in residence to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which introduced it in November 1998 under Pierre Boulez.

Miss Thomas's unprecedented nine-year tenure with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began in 1997 and runs until May 2006; since 2001 she has been professor of music at Northwestern University, following eight years on the composition faculty of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. These responsibilities have in no wise limited her activity for and with other institutions. A typical week for her might be represented by the final one in January of this year. On January 23 Oliver Knussen conducted the London Sinfonietta, with the soprano Claire Booth, in the UK premiere of Miss Thomas's In My Sky at Twilight at Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank. (That work, introduced and recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez in December 2002, six months after the London Sinfonietta gave the premiere of Light the First Light of Evening, commissioned for Mr. Knussen's 50th birthday.) Miss Thomas flew to London from Winnipeg for this event, and after 14 in London hours flew back to Winnipeg, where from the 24th to the 30th she was honored as Distinguished Guest Composer at the Winnipeg Festival, during which eight of her works were performed. On the 30th she attended the New York premiere of her Bubble: Rainbow ? (spirit level), given by the soprano Lucy Shelton and the Ensemble Sospeso under Rand Steiger in the 95th-birthday concert for Elliott Carter; the same work was performed in Chicago by Tony Arnold and the Callisto Ensemble under Cliff Colnot, on the 25th and 27th, following its private premiere in New York a month earlier.

Miss Thomas has run up a sizable collection of prizes, awards and other honors, and by now there can be few major musical institutions anywhere that have not performed her music. Her Chanting to Paradise, for soprano, chorus and orchestra, was commissioned by the NDR Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg and Christoph Eschenbach, under whom it was performed in Hamburg and other cities in November 2002 and given its American premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra the following January?two months before the premiere of her Canticle Weaving, for trombone and orchestra, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. Among her more recent premieres were those of Silver Chants the Litanies, homage to Luciano Berio, for solo horn and ensemble, commissioned by Southern Methodist University and introduced there in February of this year, and Tangle , another Chicago Symphony commission, given its premiere in March under David Robertson. Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic will introduce a her Gathering Paradise, Emily Dickinson settings for soprano and orchestra, in September, and her Grace Notes , commissioned for a Paris concert honoring the 80th birthday of Pierre Boulez, will be given its premiere by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Markus Stenz next January.

Early in her career Miss Thomas spoke out in opposition to the notion that ?classical? (or ?serious?) music must embrace commercial and pop influences if it is to survive; she regards such a view as being ?not intellectually stimulating, because it suggests that we have to forget a significant portion of our heritage.? Prominent in that heritage, for her, are the works of Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Stravinsky and Mahler, as well as jazz, ?world music,? and electronic sound. Like Stravinsky and Debussy, he has composed relatively few works with ?generic? titles (?Symphony No. 1,? as already noted, is given merely as a subtitle for her Air and Angels ), favoring more specific ones indicating some sort of descriptive or evocative motivation. Galaxy Dances comprises five brief sections, and includes prominent solo passages for violin, clarinet, trumpet, timpani, and the cello section. The composer wrote the piece with the understanding that it be the opening work in this week's concerts. She has expressed the wish ?that someday a ballet company will dance to this music,? and she has kindly provided a note of her own on the work.

Galaxy Dances opens in the lowest register of the orchestra in a timeless, floating, and gradually rising tune, which for a brief moment unfolds an impression of the massive, enduring universe. A timeless galaxy is upon us but steadily this music reaches upward and gains momentum, pushing through majestic, fanfare-like music, until it arrives at a driving, relentless dance. This is GALAXY DANCE I: punchy repeated rhythms propel the dance while a counter tune pounds its hard accents against the forceful rhythm; all the while, brass fanfares challenge the flow, always asymmetrically, and with great passion. This ?drama? is briefly interrupted by a florid and fiery solo in the clarinet, before it returns and surges to its final climax.  Galaxy Dance I is over. 

Immediately a SECOND DANCE begins. This is also rhythmic in nature, and starts in a unison rhythm between the piano and the horns, with accents thrown in by the lower strings, in intense down-bow strikes. The earlier alarming clarinet solo (from Galaxy Dance I) now reappears in transformed guise played by the violins and oboes above the energized, lower, rhythmic pulse. The motor rhythms are never the same twice, imparting a restless energy. GALAXY DANCE III is characterized by a long trumpet solo, against which the orchestra passionately spins a web of counterpoints.  It is worth stating here that the core of this entire composition's soul is found not primarily in rhythm or harmony, but in counterpoint?not simply in its conventional musical sense as the art of combining melodies, but in a rhetorical sense as the evocation of opposition. Counterpoint, I believe, is much more than a matter of texture or technique: it is this music's central metaphor. The concertmaster, in a long violin solo, controls GALAXY DANCE IV. This dance is expressive, graceful and colorful, always employing the orchestra in a wealthy tapestry of sounds supporting the soloist. When the violin solo ends we hear a brief rise from the lowest registers of the orchestra before GALAXY DANCE III begins. This final dance features the cello section and the timpani in a funky, insistent, asymmetrical groove. A coda, in the lowest register of the orchestra, suggests close, but is overwhelmed by yet another blazing big bang.

Augusta Read Thomas