Musicians always notice a sympathetic composer.
They show it by how they play the music.
“When you have music that is sympathetic to the musicians, it’s played more,” composer August Read Thomas says. “I started taking piano lessons when I was 4, and I started playing the trumpet in the third grade. I was a trumpet performance major in college, so I grew up playing in the band. It’s so ingrained in me what they have to do, and I understand it.”
Thomas comes to campus as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar. The organization is the nation’s oldest academic and honor society with chapters in 280 institutions throughout the country.
Each year, Phi Beta Kappa chooses scholars representing a variety of academic disciplines to share their knowledge on college campuses. LSU’s local chapter bid for Thomas, who will present the lecture, “The A.R.T. of Composing,” at 3:30 p.m. today in the LSU School of Music Recital Hall.
The talk will include a survey of the music Thomas has composed in the last 30 years, with illustrative manuscripts, maps of works, sketches, audio samples and detailed music explanations. An opportunity to hear two of these works will follow when Director of Bands Damon Talley conducts the LSU Wind Ensemble at 7:30 p.m.
Thomas’ “Magnetic Fireflies” is on the program, along with her French horn concerto, featuring LSU Professor of Horn Seth Orgel as the soloist.
“I’m so excited that Seth Orgel will be playing my concerto,” Thomas says. “You won’t find many concertos written for French horn, so when horn players run into one, they usually add it to their repertoire.”
The piece was commissioned by the principle French horn player for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Thomas approached it with the player in mind.
“It’s one thing to compose on a piano, but when you’ve played in a band or an orchestra, you see things differently,” she says. “I’ve had the private lessons on the piano, but I’ve also had group experience. And I know how things work together, and musicians appreciate that and they tend to want to play it more.”
Still, there’s more to a composition than playing notes. Music, like literature and visual art, is filled with nuances, each noted within the piece. Composers intend their music to be played in a particular way, yet they leave a lot open for interpretation.
Thomas worked with the Wind Ensemble on achieving such a balance in her works almost immediately after flying into Baton Rouge.
“I’ll be working with the Wind Ensemble in two rehearsals,” she said a few days before leaving her home in Chicago. “Just the fact of young musicians being able to work with a live composer is a great joy for me, but there’s a macro and a micro to this work.”
The macro comes in with Thomas talking the Wind Ensemble through what’s on the page — specific dynamics, tempos and such. The micro happens when the ensemble breathes life into the pieces through its own style and spontaneity.
“This is when that incredible combination of virtuosity and teamwork happens,” Thomas says. “Each composer has a voice. You can listen to Mahler or Stravinsky and hear their voices, and there’s a line where you have to preserve the composer’s voice, yet make the composition your own.”
Thomas’ compositions also reflect her voice, and it’s one that evolved as she matured. “Magnetic Fireflies,” for instance, was published in 2001, and when the wind ensemble plays it, Thomas will be reminded of a different time.
“Though ‘Magnetic Fireflies’ was published in 2001, I wrote it in 2000, so it’s almost 15 years old,” she says. “The French horn concerto was written four years later, and it makes me think of a different part of my life. And though things have changed, there’s still a consistency in the music. I can still tell that it’s my voice.”
Audience members quickly will detect a concise, colorful, rhythmic voice devoid of darkness. Optimism has always been her style.
It can be found in the current piece, “Eos,” Thomas is composing for the Utah Symphony Orchestra. The title pays homage to the Greek Goddess of the Dawn.
“There’s no darkness, no brooding,” Thomas says. “Everything is capricious, sunshine.”