Venturesome Soloist’s Debut ‘Dream Catcher’ Compiles Violin Works by Augusta Read Thomas

For violinist Clarissa Bevilacqua, the first-prize winner of the 14th International Mozart Competition, it would’ve been easy to cash in on yet another recording of the Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219, which she performed at the competition. Instead, her debut album Dream Catcher — out today on Nimbus Records — focuses exclusively on Augusta Read Thomas’ complete works for solo violin, plus a new recording of the celebrated composer’s Violin Concerto No. 3, Juggler in Paradise.

When Bevilacqua won the Mozart competition, in 2020, she already had Thomas’ Capricious Toccata: Dandelion Sky in her repertoire, a playful five-minute piece that opens in spurts and wends its way up and down with a bouncy staccato touch. Bevilacqua and Thomas met by chance at a pre-pandemic Chicago recital that included the piece; it was “the first time that I had the opportunity to discuss a piece of music with the actual composer,” writes the 21-year-old soloist in her album notes. She soon delved into more of Thomas’ violin music and embarked on the recording project.

Clarissa Bevilacqua and Augusta Read Thomas–Photo courtesy of Nimbus Records

Bevilacqua’s performances in Dream Catcher reveal mature musicianship and an intimate knowledge of the program — a notable slice of contemporary classical music from the U.S. With a warm tone in the low register, her fluent shifting in dynamics adds emotional resonance, and her approach to phrasing flows engagingly between Thomas’ moodiness and sunnier temperaments.

And that’s tough to pull off, for despite Thomas’ distinctive flair for unaccompanied violin — spanning 21 years from the plaintive sighs and whispers of Incantation (1995) to the solemn, dark-hued meditation of Rainbow Bridge to Paradise (2016) — there is a similar compositional approach to many of the works that lingers after repeated listens. Her material frequently develops organically from compact cells with a recurring uneven rhythm, undergirding the way she strings melodies together within a tonal framework. Stresses at the end of the melodic phrases create a slight lilt, which Bevilacqua accomplishes, adding a shimmer to the gliding motion of the music.

A highlight from the solo pieces, Rainbow Bridge is punctuated by double stops and smooth crescendos; the violin line moves along patiently, luxuriating in the gravitas of Thomas’ sober melodies, originally written for cello. Bevilacqua adds dynamic control and tonal variety, culminating in piercing shards of light in the high-register harmonics at the end.

Although the album is being marketed as including the world-premiere recording of the Violin Concerto No. 3, Juggler in Paradise, there is in fact a solid 2014 recording (available on YouTube and Amazon Music) by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with soloist Frank-Peter Zimmermann and conductor Andrey Boreyko, the 2009 world premiere performers. The 18-minute concerto in six continuous sections (unnecessarily split into tracks in the new recording) is a logical outgrowth from Thomas’ first two essays for violin and orchestra, though the older pieces — from 1997 and 2005 — call for much smaller ensembles.

In Bevilacqua’s reading of Juggler in Paradise, she achieves a comforting introspection in the most intimate sections, especially in contrast with Thomas’ orchestral musings and ensemble interplay, which includes brash and nervy statements that erupt in cycles. At times the orchestra creates a misty underbrush; at other times it imitates the constant rolling and swelling of the soloist.

Clarissa Bevilacqua--Photo courtesy of Nimbus Records

Clarissa Bevilacqua–Photo courtesy of Nimbus Records

Leading the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni executes Thomas’ pointillistic orchestration with precision, handling its shifty sneakiness skillfully. The expanded percussion section includes bongos that sound distant, pitted against woodwinds and brass. In the boisterous “Romp” section, fickle instrumental groupings — particularly low woodwinds — scurry noisily and stomp frenetically. But the soloist gets lost in the fray; Bevilacqua’s projection doesn’t always find strong footing against the large, domineering orchestra, and her attack can be a little rough, but she succeeds in inserting contemplative shimmers of light and color. Toward the end, her lambent tone counterbalances a subdued, receding brass line, as the concerto peters out weightlessly with ringing percussion.

“The vast majority of albums out there cater to a very specific, restricted niche of composers and their most well-known works,” writes Bevilacqua in the notes, which speaks to the industry’s obsessive programming of canonic Eurocentric repertoire, often at the expense of living artists. You could look on Dream Catcher as a small response to that from a big-thinking young artist whose debut album — “my reply to all those people who believe classical music is a thing of the past” — makes no concessions, refreshingly.

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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