Music review: ‘Juggler in Paradise’ at NSO

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.

The music, though, might not be so popular with audiences.

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. Despite Eschenbach’s presence and the work’s presentation between two slices of Schumann (the “Braut von Messina” overture on one side, the second symphony on the other), Thursday’s audience was sparse.

And the crowd seemed oddly untouched by the piece, 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, repeating them, with a kind of stuttering effect, to make sure you’ve got it.

“Juggler in Paradise” — its epithet perhaps one of the less successful of Thomas’s signature poetic titles — 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, and yet it’s a little too self-conscious to be truly funny.

Jennifer Koh, who played the piece at the Proms in 2009 — it had its world premiere in Paris earlier that year — gave an expressive, strong performance, epitomizing the kind of tough grace that’s present in the music, almost in spite of its tendency to fussiness.

As for Schumann, he is a touchstone to Eschenbach, who has called the composer one of his first loves. The opening overture bore out the spirit of that sentiment if not the letter — the frayed opening was slightly alarming, but the performance was robust. The second symphony, in particular, was an interesting balance with the Thomas.

The two composers share what one might call a straightforward complexity, a fundamental directness belied by the circuitous routes they sometimes take to make their points. Thomas’s music is far more tightly wound than Schumann’s — Eschenbach can sometimes mire down in episodic music — but here he found a basic vigor that acted for the most part as a through line, and the orchestra responded to him beautifully.

At the end of the conductor’s first season here, the honeymoon seems unabated. If the players don’t always sound as though they know just where to come in, they also sound energized and eager under Eschenbach’s baton. The question for next season is how the conductor can build on that basic store of goodwill.

The evening also celebrated a musician retiring from the orchestra after 42 years: Adel Sanchez has played the trumpet in the NSO since 1969. He quoted a late colleague, cellist John Martin, in thanking the audience “for making it possible for me to do what I love best — eat.”

The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday night at 8. Eschenbach (on piano) and Koh will participate in a free chamber concert at Millennium Stage on Saturday night at 6.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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