Thomas Adès Dazzles at the BSO: Audacity and Confidence

Nélida Nassar 12.03.2012

Thomas Adès recently made a triumphant series of appearances in American cities and Europe. He conducted the US premiere of the powerful, melodious The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera. Originally commisioned by London’s Covent Garden in 2004, this opera is staged by the multi-talented playwright, actor, film director, and stage director Robert Lepage. With an internationally renowned cast – Audrey Luna (Ariel), Isabel Leonard (Miranda), Iestyn Davies (Trinculo), Alek Shrader (Ferdinand), Alan Oke (Caliban), William Burden (King of Naples), Toby Spence (Antonio), and Simon Keenlyside (Prospero) – it was broadcast worldwide live in HD. He also conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra with precision and small gestural elegance conveying multitudes in a memorable program consisting of the Sibelius Symphony No. 6, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and his own composition In Seven Days for piano and orchestra, a melancholic, maze of styles and moods. Soprano Dawn Upshaw sang lyrically and majestically Sibelius’s Luonnotar symphonic, tone poem. A piece based on the exploits of Kullervo, one of the Kalevala’s main heroes of this 19th-century work of epic Finnish poetry and Karelian oral folklore and mythology. Adès then performed as a pianist with brilliance and dexterity at the New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall. The program included Beethoven’s own four-hand piano arrangement of his Grosse Fuge for string quartet with Russian-born, German-resident pianist Kirill Gernstein.

Who is this Prolific Pianist, Composer, and Conductor?
I had the good fortune of conversing with him following his Jordan Hall piano recital. Having been an admirer for ten years of his mastery of composition, his imagination, and his vitality in the treatment of the orchestra, I naturally had a hundred questions to ask him. A tall man with a rich bass voice, Adès was born in England, the son of a translator and of an art historian. There was an excellent chance that he would become a composer: “If my parents were musicians they would have condemned me to become an instrumental virtuoso. I played Liszt’s music by ear, because we had a piano at home. It is only at age 11 that I started to take music lessons. The rest is history.” Learning the piano at the Guildhall School of Music and composition at King’s College, Cambridge, Adès became an instant sensation in 1993 after his Still Sorrowing was performed at a concert in the Purcell Room in London. He went to Germany to study with György Kurtág, whom he had admired since the age of 15. When asked about his teacher, he said: “For this maestro, playing a specific note instead of another is a matter of life or death. He has and is the opposite of an English ironic spirit.”

Comparaison with Benjamin Britten
When he burst upon the musical scene, Adès was immediately compared to Benjamin Britten for his mastery of piano playing, composing and conducting. This led to his being invited to direct the Aldeburgh Festival, founded by none other than Britten himself. His music came to the attention of a wider public in 1997 with the release on EMI of Living Toys, a very cryptic work from 1993 influenced by Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. It was followed by the premiere of his first opera, Powder Her Face, at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Commisioned by the Almeida Theatre in London, this work narrates the ascent into high society of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in 1963 during her divorce proceedings. She was obsessed with fellatio, and her story is one of epic degradation. The opera – which evokes Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Alban Berg’s Lulu, Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny, and the tangoes of Astor Piazzola – includes a scene in which the main character sings a hilarious aria with her mouth closed while performing a blow job on the groom. The opera is explicit in its language and detail.

In 1999, Adès recorded his second album for EMI, Asyla, a work for orchestra. The third movement, Ecstasio, evokes Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but updated for the “techno” age. Sir Simon Rattle, a great admirer of Adès and especially of this piece, conducted it first in Birmingham and later chose it for his own inaugural concert as director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Adès Musical Philosophy and Influences
Adès has not taken a stand either for or against the European avant-garde, which from the 1950s through the 1970s split into two factions: the supporters of serialism, such as Pierre Boulez, and those who continued to compose with tonality. Both conductors and concert hall audiences have hailed his two operas, Powder Her Face and The Tempest, as masterpieces, precisely because he has not been rigidly ideological, ignoring borders and not following any one school of thought. He certainly is not the only contemporary composer to admit that there is a hierarchy between acoustical sounds, that each is made of different harmonics, in balance with each other. This does not, however, keep him from using twelve-tone or serial techniques.

The way Adès plays and manipulates the canonical forms is unique, as is evident in listening to his Sonata da Caccia, a trio for oboe, horn and harpsichord. “I believe that there is no difference between an academic and an organic form. A chaconne or a passacaglia are living forms. Even a Chopin mazurka may vary without a predetermined plan from a depressive mood to extreme joy.” He adds: “I always leave room for a musical piece to tell me what shape it will be. I do not believe that musical material is like dead clay into which the artist’s creative spirit breathes life. I believe that any musical material is magnetic
and is polarized.”

A fan of Roxy Music albums, Adès readily admits loving the “elegant sound” of Bryan Ferry’s group, and pop music in general. He has re-orchestrated Cardiac Arrest, a score for the group Madness. He also likes the melodies of Human League and Kate Bush, as well as the “incisive brass precision” on the Let’s Dance by David Bowie.

Adès has a passion for Couperin and Rameau. French baroque composers, he says, are much more mature than the Germans, who are too preoccupied by religious themes. He admires Stravinsky for the power his music can generate with only two notes; Beethoven for the energy with which he infuses a single idea; and Prokofiev for his brutality. He loves Chopin’s harmonic instability, which is so modern, so close to Ligeti, and likens his music to a universe in continuous expansion. He also admires the accuracy of the ideas in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Janáček’s sensitivity to the economy and power of language, discarding everything that is not essential. Finally, he considers Berg’s Lulu to be unsurpassable, with its one rows act rather like the leitmotifs in Wagner’s operas.

Adès Latest Opus
His latest important composition, Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra, was written for the opening of the new Arts Center in Miami, Florida, designed by Frank Gehry. It is a joint commission of the New World Symphony in Miami, along with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Barbican Centre in London. Tal Rosner, the video artist, created five video screens (moving images) for the piece. Here, Adès succeeds in making the brass create intriguing spatial effects through which waves, pulsating iridescent textures (reminiscent of Jean Sibelius or Steve Reich), woven winds, and shimmering harp and percussion suggest the high seas. The brass announces a tune that is repeated while diminishing in volume until it stabilizes at a certain height or at a pole that seems to magnetize the whole orchestra.

Asked why he starts from an “atonal” scale to compose a piece that ends with a majestic major chord, he replied: “Yes, I know, theoretically it is prohibited, unless, as myself, you do not believe in the tonal system.” He continues: “It has been recognized for centuries that certain notes attract and repel each other, but nobody knows why. The listener of a popular song does not care if he just heard a perfect fourth, followed by a third and a fifth, he just feels that the sequence is smooth. I’m like that. I start writing the notes in the composition and I see with my natural microscope, how they behave and vibrate. My work, my talent if I have one, is to understand and feel these magnetic effects.”

Adès is infatuated with Montmartre in Paris, where he has chosen to reside. Each time he passes next to Dalida’s sculpture bust there, he sings her famous Parole, Parole. Why has he moved into this neighborhood? “Not for romance, just because it is fairly quiet and withdrawn allowing me to work and to complete two commissions. An opera for two singers, modeled on Béla Bartók’s Blue-Bearded Duke. Then another piece, inspired by Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, which will premiere in Salzburg.” To fully appreciate Adès’s music one has to immerse oneself in it. Renowned as being an aloof artist, he leaves hurriedly, but with a twinkle in his eye, promising to dazzle us with transformative and powerful new music.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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