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Violin Concerto No. 3, "Juggler in Paradise"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Augusta Read Thomas
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Augusta Read Thomas Jun. 9 - 11, 2011
© Thomas May

Augusta Read Thomas: Violin Concerto No. 3, Juggler in Paradise

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, Varèse, Ravel, 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 spiritual, 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 3 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.”