Arts Desk

Jennifer Koh Plays Augusta Read Thomas at the Kennedy Center, Reviewed

It’s a nice idea, but it’s unclear whether the National Symphony Orchestra’s Prelude series of free chamber recitals is likely to build an audience for its pay performances or draw it away. If you’re eager to see violinist Jennifer Koh this weekend, you can pay $20 to $85 to see her with the full orchestra in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall—or you can see her for free on Saturday on the Millennium Stage.

But for this program, the real draw is not the soloist but the composer: Augusta Read Thomas, who was in attendance Thursday as the NSO gave the inaugural stateside performance of her third violin concerto.  The NSO has a long history with Thomas, having performed eight of her works under three music directors – including four debuts—going back to Air and Angels in 1992 under Mstislav Rostropovich. Maybe someone who was around then can fill us in on how they fared with audiences; this piece got mostly blank stares and a smattering of polite applause. Retiring principal trumpet Adel Sanchez got a more enthusiastic response when he was hauled up to receive his farewell plaque.

Koh performed only the Thomas piece, which, while written for a full orchestra, is basically a long solo with the NSO performing a supporting and mostly percussive role. Like too many contemporary classical composers, Thomas substitutes mood for melody, that mood usually being either whimsy or anxiety. (Thomas manages to straddle both.) It begins with a languid violin line that picks up jarring interjections from the orchestra haphazardly, like raindrops on a tin roof.  The concerto evokes the score of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, whereas its unfortunate title, Juggler in Paradise, brings to mind Jimmy Buffett.

Thomas explicitly wrote Juggler in Paradise to be physically demanding, and Koh muscled through it gamely.  She broke several bow strings throughout the performance, while the stage lighting showed off her toned biceps and deltoids, contrasting with a regal purple dress. Her preferred stance is to lean way forward when she plays, as if scolding a small child. The orchestral responses are surprising, involving wooden blocks, plucked piano strings and a really long bongo sequence that reflects Thomas’ flirtation with jazz. Those in attendance at Thursday’s performance were treated to an additional accompaniment by a malfunctioning hearing aid belonging to some guy seated around row HH.

Juggler in Paradise was bookended by two works by Robert Schumann: his overture to Die Braut von Messina and the better-known Symphony No. 2.  The first, an interpretation of a play by Friedrich Schiller, is a product of Schumann’s fanboy obsession with the German playwright, second only to that of Lyndon LaRouche. It’s a caterwauling sonata evoking the sadness of both Schiller’s tragedy and Schumann’s own life. But the emotion was lacking on Thursday, with the violins coming off meekly in the lighter themes. The symphony was better, though it took a while for the orchestra to build to its thrilling conclusion. Comprising a manic-depressive first movement, a repetitive OCD motif in the second, a just-plain-depressive third and an exuberant freakout in the fourth, it’s a slow-motion nervous breakdown by the guy who so out-romanticized Ludwig van Beethoven that he died in the loony bin after a failed suicide.

This weekend concludes Christoph Eschenbach’s first season as music director of the NSO, and, on paper at least, it should be his ideal program.  The disparate composers link Eschenbach’s two great loves and strengths, German romanticism and contemporary classical (although Eschenbach favors European composers, and Thomas is American).  But the nowhere-near-capacity audience was underwhelmed, and was quick to head out after a short ovation. If Eschenbach is, as we are told, enjoying a first-season love affair, it’s more apparent on the orchestra and management end than from the audience. But the maestro has plenty more opportunities to don his Nehru jacket and show D.C. what he’s about, both as a conductor and musician. He accompanies Koh on the piano for Saturday’s informal—and, once again, free—pre-game recital at the Millennium Stage.

The performance repeats Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11, both at 8 p.m., at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW.  $20 – $85.  (800) 444-1324.

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