Mark Laporta on Augusta Read Thomas’s Violin Concertos

Prolific, proficient, prominent, this composer of (at least) three violin concertos has earned accolades that only people who lack the capacity to dream wouldn’t dream of. Look into her background and the critical response and, seriously, where’s that Scotch bottle got to? You can hear for yourself, here, and here, and here and here.

Fortunately, beyond the press puffery and a whole lot of spiritualizing palaver, these are three works of real musical substance. Maybe they won’t win the award for startling originality, at least as measured by quantitative leaps in what passes for “technique” in this era. But the uses she puts to tried and true Modernist trends are convincing, fresh and brimming with personality.

“Convincing,” that is, because nothing crops up in the texture for its own sake, as I hear it. But even at a more basic level, what an ear for the violin she has! Contributing to the success of all three works is also the intriguing, uncluttered texture. Each sonic element is in balance.

What’s missing? Well, the trouble with balance is that it can lead to stasis or, worse, stagnation. Though Thomas steers clear of both, the absence of real abandon, makes all three works a shade less concertante than you might expect, given the genre. In that sense, with the possible exception of Concerto 2, nicknamed “Carillon Sky,” these pieces register more as tone poems with obbligato violin.

But to fixate on that kind of thing is to ignore the works’ real values in favor of tidy abstractions. Whether or not I get my “freak out” moment from the soloist, the undeniable logic and surface beauty of these works deserve attention. Besides, her melodic gestures are often rather affecting, especially when, at the start of Concerto 1 (“Spirit Musings”), they evoke human speech.

So it is that Concerto 1 rolls out slightly calmer in the first movement, and slightly more impassioned in the second. But, in my experience, it’s hard to perceive that difference without multiple listenings. I suppose it’s like acclimating your palette to a more subtle cuisine than the chili dogs you’re used to. Part of the problem, though, lies in the second movement’s length. You might say it’s too brief to fulfill the premise laid out by the first movement.

Whatever is meant by “Carillon Sky” (Concerto 2) — is it the title of a poem, a metaphor for a philosophical concept, or just a bit of self-absorbed whimsy? — as usual, it hardly matters. The work would still be the tautest and, in my opinion, most satisfying of the three. Here the solo violin delivers far more unbridled emotion, which does more than address my personal preferences. It also helps drive the piece forward and “inspires” responses from the other instruments.

Aiding this effect is the much smaller ensemble, which gives Thomas’ characteristic 12-tonish gestures more grit and fewer places to hide, as between the sustained wind chords, “harpeggios” and bell sounds of “Juggler in Paradise,” Concerto 3.

Here again, for me, the title is a distraction that promises more than it delivers. I suppose, along with the nearly life-size photos of herself that dominate her online presence, they are a necessary component of her public persona and media savvy self-promotion. But it bothers me how much they trivialize her substantive music.

Never mind. At least, as I hear it, the substance is there. And though her music does operate in a narrow orbit in these pieces, her go-to routines never fail her. Time and again, her fragmentary textures magically add up to a larger canvas. While the reason for this is certainly due to her talent, it may also be due to the fact that, after all these years, there’s no more need for composers to deliver this kind of texture as their esthetic calling card.

So, as much as I continue to enjoy Stravinsky’s “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” I’m constantly struck by how self-conscious a work it is. “See what I’m doing here?” he seems to say at several points. For Thomas, the fragment thing is a given and she has the esthetic breathing room to give it slightly more shape and purpose than a comparable work by Charles Wuorinen, et al.

This bears fruit most especially in “Juggler,” I think, where there’s a tad more variety, and where a hint of actual risk-taking breaks through that polished alabaster surface. But let me not exaggerate, except to point out that, in a certain sense, even the composer’s more dramatic moments are ruled by “within-the-box” thinking. They reside, in other words, in the Drama box and are set out with grace and poise rather than genuine passion. And yet, carp though I may, these are works by a profoundly talented musician. I can only hope that a shift in the wind might allow her the personal freedom to expand her range, both technically and emotionally.


Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available  in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.