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Violin Concerto #3: "Juggler in Paradise" (2008)

For violin and orchestra

Violin Solo, Picc.2(alto Fl).2+E.H.2+bcl.1+cbn/4431/6perc/2hp/pno/cel/str

First performance by Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin solo) and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France,
Andrey Boreyko conductor, at Salle Pleyel, in Paris, on 16 January 2009
Second performance by Jennifer Koh (violin solo) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek, conductor
at Royal Albert Hall, in London, on 9 September 2009 USA premiere by Jennifer Koh (violin solo) and the National Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor, at the Kennedy Center
Washington DC on June 9-11, 2011.
Duration: 20 minutes

A viola version of this work has been created by the composer and has not yet received a world premiere:
This is identical to Violin Concerto #3.
Solo viola, Picc.2(alto Fl).2+E.H.2+bcl.1+cbn/4431/6perc/2hp/pno/cel/str
This viola version is merely transposed down a perfect fifth in many places. Slight re-orchestrations were made by the composer to accommodate the downward transposition. First performance: TBD

Program Note

Frank Peter Zimmermann, violinist
Photo by Klaus Rudolph

Program Note by Thomas May for the National Symphony

"I think of my compositions as luminous, crystalline poems — very precise, yet ablaze with spontaneous life and human spirit," observes Augusta Read Thomas. "Poets' beautiful utterances, elegantly crafted, in blazing juxtapositions, remain vastly inspiring to me and my music for their meanings, sounds, and concision." Indeed, settings of Emily Dickinson, Rumi, Wallace Stevens, Tennyson, and Basho, among other poets, are part of her oeuvre. Yet like Schumann, Thomas — who was born in 1964 in Glen Cove, New York — channels her characteristically poetic sensibility into music that isn't programmatic or "descriptive" but that creates an interior, autonomous world of its own. In lieu of abstract genre designations, even her purely instrumental compositions — the bulk of her prolific catalogue — tend to be known by such poetically suggestive titles as Galaxy Dances, Orbital Beacons, Helios Choros, and Carillon Sky.

Over the past two decades, the National Symphony Orchestra has developed a keen affinity for Thomas's music, introducing eight of her works to its repertory — from Air and Angels in1992 to the concerto that here receives its U.S. premiere. "I remain deeply moved by my longtime relationship with the NSO," remarks the composer, whose music the orchestra has championed under Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Slatkin, and Christoph Eschenbach alike.

Thomas, who grew up playing first piano and then trumpet, also began composing at an early age. Her published works (numbering over 100 titles to date) range from exquisitely jeweled chamber music to choral and orchestral pieces, many of which originated as commissions from the leading American and European orchestras. Along with her commissions by the Hechinger Fund for the NSO, Thomas has received numerous other grants and awards, including a prestigious decade-long composer residency with the Chicago Symphony. She was one of two finalists for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work Astral Canticle, and in 2009 Thomas was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Another significant facet of her career is her ongoing role as a teacher and mentor to other composers, which Thomas considers "an extension of my creative process." She has held positions at the Eastman School of Music, Northwestern University, and Tanglewood and is currently one of four University Professors at the University of Chicago. Additionally, Thomas points out, "being a good citizen in our profession matters to me." Accordingly, she devotes considerable energy to volunteer activities as an advisor and member of various musical boards.

A fascinating paradox central to Thomas's aesthetic is the delicate balance she maintains between creating utterly original sound worlds and her reverence for past tradition. She speaks of "the perfumes" of especially admired composers that can be sensed in her own work — Debussy, Ravel, Varèse, the early Stravinsky — while J.S. Bach remains a pole star, "my all-time idol." All of these influences blend in novel ways in her new Juggler in Paradise concerto. The muscular, "athletic" percussion scoring found in Boulez and even, perhaps, a dash of Messiaen are other reference points for the bell-like, shimmering sounds that are a signature of the work.

Yet there's nothing remotely derivative about this music. The presence of Bach as a model, for example, doesn't mean her piece sounds like him; instead, Thomas is attracted to what she calls "a certain kind of spirituality in his music — the sense of a human being yearning to convey something to you as the listener." On a technical level, too, she points to Bach's ability to manipulate different strata of sounds to fashion a coherent "compound melody." This principle of "two lines crossing over each other on the violin's strings" is a salient feature of Juggler. So, too, is the process of constant transformation and growth — again, quintessentially Bach-like — that guides Thomas's treatment not only of her thematic material but of every nuance in her orchestration. The extended palette of percussion instruments in her score, for example, isn't applied "like lipstick," she points out, but is integral, coming "from inside the DNA of the composition."

Meanwhile, Thomas dispenses with the clichés so often associated with the conventional concerto. Instead of the routine three-movement structure, Juggler in Paradise unfolds in a single span, creating a form from within whose fluctuations of texture and tempo are uniquely suited to the material unique to this piece. Thomas moreover reconsiders the notion of virtuosity. Her approach to the solo violin ignores superficial display in favor of delicately pointilistic writing that emphasizes "the mystical, lyrical, meditative, aspects of the player." And for all the precision of her score, Thomas also points to the influence of the improvisatory spirit of jazz: "I like my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled — on the spot," she says, "as if we listeners, the audience, are overhearing a captured improvisation."

Thomas kindly provided the following description of Juggler in Paradise:

"Flowering across a 20-minute arch, the work can be thought of as a series of poetic outgrowths and variations which are organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections. The violin solo is present for almost 100% of the sweeping arc, serving as the protagonist as well as fulcrum point on and around which all musical force-fields rotate, bloom, and proliferate.

The concerto begins with a slow, spacious, elegant solo for violin, accompanied, at first, by delicate sounds in the harps and percussion. Steadily the orchestration thickens, providing natural momentum for the soloist's necessity to continue "singing" with an inner energy that ever so gradually becomes animated and increasingly characterized. With each new phrase, across a 14-minute arch, the tempos quicken. At the point when the bongo drums' solos appear, the music progressively becomes playful, spry, and jazzy. This builds into an all-out 3-minute romp — loud, punchy, virtuosic and athletic! Toward the end of the gambol, the soloist has the option to play a 30-second cadenza, providing it is in the style, syntax, and language of the composition and continues a high level of rhythmic energy. The intensity climaxes and ends, and we are suddenly in a spacious landscape. A feeling of timeless space leads to the final 5 minutes of the composition, which are dreamy — as if the soloist were delicately floating while chanting an ardent incantation.

The work's subtitle, Juggler in Paradise, is a poetic image for the way soloist and orchestra relate, a continuous rhapsodic cadenza set against colorful "paradisiacal constellations." It's physical, too: dance is often close by. When the violin starts to speed up, the score suggests playing "as if 'juggling' the notes, rhythms, articulations" and, further on, "like several objects in motion, in the air."  The animated, quicksilver orchestrations, at times pointillist like a Seurat paining, at other times akin to bold brush strokes, full and brassy, are continuously juggling and flexibly rearranging."

Copyright 2011 Thomas May

Selected Reviews

Violinist Jennifer Koh
Photo by Janette Beckman

Anne Midgette, The Washington Post "Augusta Read Thomas writes music that is dense and smart but also listenable.  Thick with complex rhythms, bright with textures, dappled with particular shades of dissonance alternating with snatches of melody, it doesn't blatantly try to seduce the hearer, but it doesn't want to be off-putting, either.

"Hers is emphatic music, making its points with a care that approaches the finicky, but it's always looking over its shoulder to make sure that you're following.

"Its blend of intellect and accessibility makes her music very popular with orchestra programmers and conductors. Indeed, all of the National Symphony Orchestra's recent conductors have liked her music; the orchestra has played eight of her pieces since 1992, when Mstislav Rostropovich led the world premiere of her first symphony, Air and Angels, on the season's opening night.  And though the co-commission for her third violin concerto, Juggler in Paradise, was made in 2007, well before Christoph Eschenbach was appointed music director of the NSO, Eschenbach likes her music so much that he opted to conduct the work's American premiere in his last program of his first season, offered Thursday night.

"Eight pieces in two decades by one orchestra is an excellent track record for a composer in her 40s, yet it's hardly enough to breed familiarity among the public.

"...a 20-minute arc in which the violin trails through the orchestra and accumulates sounds, like a strand of string picking up sugar crystals to form rock candy.  Thomas makes emphatic gestures built of sometimes unperceived subtleties...

"[it] is a Harlequin-like piece spangled with bells and wood blocks, in which the violin solos are often joined by bongo drums, or lead into passages of big-band jazziness.  At one point, the orchestra held its breath for a solo bongo cadenza, then pounced with a quick powerful chord, like a cat leaping on a mouse. In short, it's a piece shot through with antic humor...

"Jennifer Koh... gave an expressive, strong performance, epitomizing the kind of tough grace that's present in the music..."

Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun "...the U.S. premiere of Violin Concerto No. 3 by Augusta Read Thomas. This NSO co-commission represents a significant addition to the repertoire.

"Structured in a single, 20-minute span, the vividly orchestrated score "juggles" ideas and rhythms to create an absorbing dialogue between soloist and orchestra. There's a lot of jaunty, pointillistic writing that gradually builds up to what suggests Bernstein's jazziest dances from "West Side Story" — but on speed.

"An enormous percussion battery is employed, with the bongos providing extra color, but the violin nonetheless holds its own, eventually taming the orchestra in a concluding section of rapt lyricism.

"Jennifer Koh was the confident, communicative soloist. She enjoyed supple partnering from Eschenbach, vivid interaction from the NSO."

Andrew Lindemann Malone, DMV CLASSICAL The NSO, in fact, co-commissioned the concerto...the orchestra made a good investment.

"The work unfolds over one continuous span, the violinist playing nearly the whole time. The orchestra provides mostly spare accompaniment, especially from a vast array of tuned percussion instruments, which on Thursday spanned the rear of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall's stage. The concerto journeyed from a quiet, slow opening, where high harmonics in Koh's solo part were matched by delicate harps and percussion and then by ethereal strings, through various surges and scrambles on the part of both violinist and orchestra to a higher pitch of activity, then returning to the sublimated mood of the beginning.

"...the process of transformation, of the soloist-juggler playing with and against the paradisiacal orchestra, was the product.

"No violinist could have tackled the challenge of putting across such a work better than Jennifer Koh. Whenever you hear Koh play, you know you are going to hear a performance in which the relation of every note to every other note in the piece has been deeply considered, in an effort to create a paradoxically spontaneous-sounding whole. Here, she made her violin line into a guidepath through the work, achieving Thomas' goal of personification. The most memorable passages came when Koh meditated about a phrase or note and got confirmed or knocked around by an interjection from the tuned percussion; you could hear Koh making her violin line react to the changed circumstances and find its way. Eschenbach and the NSO timed their interjections precisely for maximum impact, yet restrained their volume to give the violin the dominant voice.

"Koh also took on Thomas' challenge of providing an optional cadenza within a work the composer described as "a continuous rhapsodic cadenza" in a program note; Koh's effort, which seemed to be inspired by a pizzicato orchestral passage earlier in the piece, seemed both a profound inversion of the arc of the piece and exactly the right music to transition into a slow coda[.]

"...[it is] a work that I'd gladly hear again tomorrow."

Martin Kettle, The Guardian (UK) "The UK premiere of the third violin concerto by the US composer Augusta Read Thomas was the most engaging part of the programme. Thomas's concerto sets a lyrical solo part, played with great style by Jennifer Koh, against refreshingly spare orchestral writing that conveyed a great sense of space and brightness."

Daniel Hathaway, Clevelandclassical.com "Thomas has a fine ear for color and impressive skill in orchestration. Preucil, Mitchell, and the [Cleveland] Orchestra put this eminently listenable piece across with all the nuanced care it deserves."

Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer "Thomas, it must be noted, is a whiz when it comes to writing for orchestra."

Barry Millington, London Evening Standard Violin Concerto #3 at the BBC Proms

"The subtitle of American composer Augusta Read Thomas's Third Violin Concerto, Juggler in Paradise (a BBC co-commission, receiving its UK premiere), hints both at the athletic part given the solo violin and the almost celestial regions inhabited by the orchestra.

"At the start of the work it is the violin that establishes that sphere, though it is soon surrounded by an aura of bell-like sounds produced by harp, celesta, vibraphone, glockenspiel and indeed tubular chimes.

"Soloist Jennifer Koh, comfortable at the top of her fingerboard, brought a sweet tone and secure technique to the latest offering from this prolific American composer."

Neil Fisher, The Times (London) Prom 72: BBCSO / Belohlavek at the Albert Hall, London

"The American composer Augusta Read Thomas calls her newest violin concerto (her third) Juggler in Paradise, and its circus tricks are certainly spangled across a colourful sky. Bright, dappled effects — Read Thomas likens them to the pointillist style of Georges Seurat — are speckled across a small orchestra whose glistening, open textures are primarily drawn from the bell-like sonorities of celeste, piano and percussion. As fantasy or caprice the piece certainly teases."

 

The National Symphony Orchestra

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