Saturday 14 January 2023

She wants to make recordings that have something to do with the world now: violinist Clarissa Bevilacqua on recording the music of Augusta Reid Thomas

Clarissa Bevilacqua
Clarissa Bevilacqua

As part of Nimbus Records' ongoing series devoted to the American composer Augusta Reid Thomas, Dreamcatcher features the young violinist Clarissa Bevilacqua in Reid Thomas' complete works for solo violin plus the Violin Concerto No. 3 'Juggler in Paradise' with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni. The disc also forms Clarissa's debut disc.

Born in Italy and raised in the USA, Clarissa is currently based in Berlin where she is studying, and from where she spoke to me via Zoom. She was familiar with Reid Thomas' music well before making the recording, as Clarissa knew the composer's work from the period when Clarissa was studying in Chicago (Reid Thomas is a professor at the University of Chicago). Clarissa programmed some of Reid Thomas' music at a recital (Clarissa was around 16 at the time) and the composer came along, liked the performance and the two got talking. The recording project developed during the pandemic; the works for solo violin were recorded in Chicago in September 2021, with the concerto recorded in Cardiff in April 2022.

Recording session for August Read Thomas' Violin Concerto No 3 - Clarissa Bevilacqua, Vimbayi Kaziboni, BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recording session for August Read Thomas' Violin Concerto No 3 - Clarissa Bevilacqua, Vimbayi Kaziboni, BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Clarissa enjoys Reid Thomas' music for the remarkable detail of her writing, and the harmonic sound world that she creates. Clarissa finds the music a great mix, a 21st-century modernism rooted in tradition with great harmonic substance. There is the same depth in the works for solo violin; the violin is evidently Reid Thomas' favourite instrument, and both she and Clarissa thus share a passion for it. In some of the solo violin works, Reid Thomas' writing is sympathetically in the melodic range, showing a great understanding of how the instrument resonates, whilst others are incredibly technically demanding, but still sympathetic. Clarissa describes the first single from the disc, Rush [available on YouTube] as two minutes jam-packed with technical virtuosity, yet it is musical too.

The concerto is a bit of both. Thematically it is linked to the solo, Dreamcatcher (hence the disc's name), which is a work of idyllic calm, like a dream. The concerto begins and ends in the world of Dreamcatcher, but in the middle Reid Thomas takes things to a new level with technical demands on both soloist and orchestra, with so much movement in all the instrumental parts. So the work begins and ends in nothing, with what Clarissa describes as a big bubble of energy in the middle. And it is evidently a fantastic work to play! They recorded Reid Thomas' third violin concerto (her most recent) partly because it has not been recorded before, though it also fits the theme of the album, but Clarissa hopes to play the earlier two as well. 

A disc of works by a contemporary composer, many not recorded before, is perhaps an unusual selection for a debut disc, but Clarissa chose to do it. Certainly, the music required work, but it also meant that she got to work with the composer on the pieces. Her choice was very deliberate, resulting from a long process of thought; she really cherishes the pieces and feels they have made something long-lasting. Also, no-one has ever recorded Reid Thomas' whole collection of music for unaccompanied violin (nine works in total). And of course, there could easily be a second volume devoted to Reid Thomas' chamber music and the other concertos. Also, Clarissa points out that Reid Thomas may well write further works for solo violin, but both composer and soloist are happy with the idea that the disc is simply a snapshot in time.

Recording session for August Read Thomas' Violin Concerto No 3 - Vimbayi Kaziboni, Clarissa Bevilacqua, Augusta Read Thomas, BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recording session for August Read Thomas' Violin Concerto No 3 - Vimbayi Kaziboni, Clarissa Bevilacqua, Augusta Read Thomas, BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Clarissa trained as a classical violinist, growing up with the classic concertos and practising them. As such, contemporary music can be something of a challenge but it comes with the benefit of being able to have a real connection with the composer. When playing Brahms, Clarissa has to guess what the composer might have been thinking, but Reid Thomas had a story for the background to each and every work. Clarissa cherished this sense of connection, and it changed her view of composers like Brahms. She calls it a unique experience, being able to talk to the creator of music that you love.

When we speak, the disc was just being released and Clarissa was looking forward to taking a break, but she hopes that people enjoy the disc as much as she did. Looking ahead there is Mendelssohn and masterclasses in Thailand, and then she opens Mozart Week in Salzburg. But she promises that there are more contemporary pieces in the pipeline.

Clarissa makes a deliberate distinction between the repertoire she plays in concert and that which she wants to record. She points out that there are millions of recordings of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, she plays it in concerts but if she recorded it, her version would be simply one of many, though she may record it one day. She wants to make recordings that have something to do with the world now, that surprise the audience and help them to relate to the music. She feels that it is important that people can listen to her in modern music. She wants people to be surprised by the new album and hopes that this collection of what she calls musical poems will push listeners towards something new and exciting.

Dreamcatcher - Augusta Read Thomas, Vimbayi Kaziboni, Clarissa Bevilacqua, BBC National Orchestra of Wales - NImbus
She started playing the violin when young. Her parents are not musicians, but they listened to music a lot and when the young Clarissa was taken to a concert with a solo violinist, she loved the instrument instantly, falling in love with the sight and sound of it. She was young, and didn't really understand, but decided she wanted to play the violin. Talented young, she did her Bachelors degree whilst still at High School, a taxing time which was a lot of work. Whilst the violin was her passion, it was so much having to practice whilst also working at High School. At the age of 16, she had her Bachelor's degree, and this put her at a crossroads, which was scary. She auditioned for music schools and got into what she describes as her dream class in Salzburg, studying with Pierre Amoyal who was a pupil of Jascha Heifetz, a violinist whom Clarissa admires greatly. It was a dream, convincing her that this was the right decision, but there was a moment when she wondered, do I want to do this?

Jascha Heifetz is definitely one of her heroes, for how vulnerable he could be on stage so that his sound came from something real inside; not perfection, but something very human. Another violinist she admires is Christian Ferras for his Chausson and Brahms. She also admires Augusta Reid Thomas, whom she has got to know far better as a result of making the recordings, and Clarissa describes the composer as generous, kind and patient.

There is so much repertoire out there, that there are still plenty of works that she would love to play and she mentions Schubert's Quintet in C major, and she wants to play the Barber and the Shostakovich concertos. So she plans to keep learning and keep playing, and hopefully will stumble upon more great music. She has developed a method of practice which usually makes learning a new work a quick process, but then it takes time for her to become comfortable with the music. Often things only click into place when she goes on stage, and she feels that passion for the piece.

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