Juggler in Paradise

Composer Portrait:

Augusta Read Thomas
A Circle around the Sun
Sun Threads – Invocations
Passion Prayers
[all European premieres]

Augusta Read Thomas in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Musicians from the Royal College of Music:

Animus Piano Trio [Artem Kotov (violin), Yulia Vorontsova (piano) & Mikhail Shumov (cello)]
Kallisto String Quartet [Joshua Burke & Zhanna Tonaganyan (violins), Natalia Czerska (viola) & Benjamin Havas (cello)]
Christopher Graves (cello) with Agata Darashkaite (violin), Cecilia Sultana De Maria (harp), Nicola Crowe (flute), Chris Goodman (clarinet), Maria Marchant (piano) & Jason Chowdury (percussion), conducted by Rui Pinheiro

Prom 72:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21; Scherzo, Nocturne & Wedding March, Op.61
Augusta Read Thomas
Violin Concerto No.3, ‘Juggler in Paradise’ [BBC co-commission with Radio France, Mr and Mrs Bill Brown and the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC: UK premiere]
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Jennifer Koh (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Violin concertos with eye-catching and imagination-stimulating nicknames seem all the rage at the moment. Only the night before BBC Proms had presented Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Fiddler on the Shore’ (his Violin Concerto No.2), and now here was ‘Juggler in Paradise’, Augusta Read Thomas’s Violin Concerto No.3, first performed in January this year by Frank Peter Zimmermann. He should have been the soloist for this UK premiere, but his withdrawal passed that honour to Jennifer Koh.

As Augusta Read Thomas (born 1964) explained in the pre-concert Composer Portrait, poetic titles can prove a way-in for the listener, but nothing is more important than the music itself. ‘Juggler in Paradise’, using a pared-down orchestra but including celesta, harp and piano as well as ‘bright’ but not noisy percussion deftly cuts between a Firebird-like atmosphere and ‘third-stream’ jazz, sometimes reminding of Szymanowski (if without the exoticism) and with a soundworld and precision that recalls Boulez and Carter, yet the expression is less challenging. The spectral interchanges between soloist and orchestra engaged the most, but the more-secretive slower music outstayed its initial welcome; indeed, even at 17 minutes, the work seemed a couple of minutes too long, and the close is ambiguous without asking any questions.

The chamber music played during the Composer Portrait emphasised August Read Thomas’s European lineage rather than her American one; A Circle around the Sun (for piano trio) recalled Bartók, a composer also present in the sinewy melodic lines of ‘Invocations’, a movement from Sun Threads (for string quartet). Making the biggest impression was Passion Prayers (for cello and ensemble), the scoring reminding of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, and once past the incantatory opening developing an American openness. The performances, from students at the Royal College of Music (I believe that Andrew McGregor advised that Artem Kotov is from Trinity College), seemed excellent and certainly delighted the composer.

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaThe standard fare of the main concert found the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek giving inconsistent accounts (and not helped by a gaggle of people around me so obsessed by their mobile phones that whenever there was a break out came their toys, and those elsewhere in the Hall who can’t resist applauding between movements – no matter how vacuous, irritating and intrusive it is), but such distractions couldn’t disguise a lack of rehearsal in the Mendelssohn (Augusta Read Thomas’s Violin Concerto was meticulously prepared), which was enjoyably ethereal and translucent and warmly lyrical at its best, and closed with a particularly noble account of the ‘Wedding March’ that wiped the slate clean, cymbals adding colour rather than noise (Augusta Read Thomas would have approved).

The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony was in many ways a joy, perfectly paced in its moderation, transparently balanced (save the coarse and too-loud horns in the finale) and wholly beguiling, yet while the performance matched the movements’ titles, there is a deeper seam of emotion and searching in this music that this lightly turned and elegant account skipped a little too easily over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content