Balls in the Air: National Symphony Orchestra, June 9, 2011
“Juggler in Paradise” is not the story of the time Jimmy Buffet joined the circus, but rather the subtitle of Augusta Read Thomas‘ Violin Concerto no. 3, which received its U.S. premiere Thursday night from soloist Jennifer Koh and the National Symphony Orchestra under its music director, Christoph Eschenbach. The NSO, in fact, co-commissioned the concerto in 2007. Despite the subtitle, which I cannot quite bring myself to take seriously, 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.
From start to finish, Thomas made no effort to provide memorable melodies or get any rhythms going for more than a few bars; instead, 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, during which I counted two possible satisfying endings before Koh’s bow arm finally fell slack. That overlong close is my only real reservation about a work that I’d gladly hear again tomorrow, provided that Koh was playing it.
On Thursday’s program, the Thomas concerto was sandwiched between Schumann opuses, ensuring that at least two of the three works played that evening would be related somehow. (If you haven’t picked up the June 6 issue of the New Yorker to read Alex Ross’ thoughts on orchestral programming, by the way, you need to do so. It’s what I would write if I were smarter and had time to write!) In the event, the NSO made a virtue of this program design by playing both of Bobby S.’s works really well.
The Overture to “Die Braut von Messina” got its first NSO performance on Thursday, and the opening arpeggio felt like a punch to the face, a blast of energy soon submerged in gloomy ruminating that maintained a doomful air. Eschenbach and the orchestra created a sound that bristled with dark menace and milked the tragic thrust of the narrative for all it was worth — this was far from a perfunctory curtain-raiser.
Different delights came after intermission, as Schumann’s second symphony got a performance whose good humor and crackling playing frequently made me smile from ear to ear. Eschenbach’s control of the music never wavered — each repetition of the scherzo in the second movement sounded just as fresh as the initial iteration, with the NSO’s violins bustling in extremely merry fashion — but his deep spontaneity in the long melodic paragraphs of the Adagio espressivo third movement almost made me feel that I had never heard the symphony before.
The finale burst with energy and imagination as well, leading naturally to a standing O that marked not only Eschenbach’s last subscription concert of the season but also trumpeter Adel Sanchez’ retirement, after 42 years of blowing in D.C. A satisfying way to go out for all concerned.
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