Wielding a magic wand
Conductor Thomas Adès lives up to lofty expectations in a showcase at Disney.
By Mark Swed - February 13, 2006
From the LA Times
There is much to say about Thomas Adès, the brilliant British composer who is spending some time with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But it sometimes seems that there has been too much said about this man who is also a conductor, pianist and festival director and is still only in his mid-30s. It's a dilemma.
Fortunately, Adès — who appeared as a pianist playing chamber music with Philharmonic members in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night and then conducted the orchestra in his own works, along with pieces by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, over the weekend — is already well known to many Southern Californians. He's been on the Philharmonic's radar screen for years, participating in Green Umbrella concerts as he will do again next week as part of his residency.
In addition, Simon Rattle conducted the orchestra in Adès' best-known orchestral work, "Asyla," at the Ojai Festival in 2000. And the next year, Long Beach Opera was the first American opera company to produce his sexually bold, irresistibly mischievous first opera, "Powder Her Face." Both works have been star-making.
In England, Adès is not just known — he's a major force in the country's musical life. Critics deemed him the next Benjamin Britten before he had even found his voice, and then they acted disappointed when he turned out to be something far more distinctive. He further perplexed a pigeonholing press by never repeating himself. Rather than applying more "Powder" or re-creating the Ecstasy-driven raves of "Asyla," he wrote a slew of arresting pieces, both big and small but always unpredictable. You never knew if he might take his cue from Couperin, Brahms, Kurtág or a bit of pop culture. For instance, "America: A Prophecy," a supposedly celebratory New York Philharmonic millennium commission, had a far different tone than the rapt "Asyla." Premiered at the end of 2000, it is dark, chilling, important music, replete with a warning of an impending attack on a self-indulgent nation that New Yorkers didn't appreciate at the time and resented even more a year later. In contrast, the uncontroversial neoclassical conventionality of Adès' second opera — a grand-scaled adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" commissioned by the Royal Opera to celebrate the renovation of Covent Garden — left some of us scratching our heads at its tame premiere in 2004.
At Disney Hall on Friday night, selections from "The Tempest" were heard in the U.S. for the first time, along with the American premiere of Adès' new Violin Concerto, his first major post-"Tempest" orchestral work. He included "Tempest" context too. Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture inspired by Shakespeare's magical last play began the program, and Adès preceded his opera scenes with the second suite that Sibelius compiled from his incidental music for the play. So much goes on in Adès' music and his musical mind. His music is not hard to listen to. He is a flamboyant composer with a highly evolved dazzle gene. He gets bright, unusual, quirky, alluring sounds that, on a very immediate level, tickle the ear. Like Stravinsky, he has an original instinct for harmony and melody, which can be almost traditional but sound like nothing you've heard before. He delights in virtuosity and sensuality.
The Violin Concerto, a Philharmonic co-commission that premiered in Berlin late last summer, is a bright, flashy score. The solo is fiendishly fast, flighty music with barely a moment's rest. Anthony Marwood, for whom it was written, emanated radiance in a white suit and standing on a platform at the front of the stage. He played like a spirit, an Ariel, never touching ground whether in the rapid filigree inventions of the first movement, the ghostly, highflying lyricism of the second or the leaping happy dance of the finale. My first impression of the work itself was one of slenderness. But I've come not to trust first reactions to Adès' music. Much of what felt slight or disappointing at the "Tempest" premiere was, I now suspect, a combination of an uncertain first night in the opera house and music that doesn't reveal its depth right away. If time spent with a score and a recording of a more secure later performance hadn't finally convinced me of the opera's worth, I'm sure that hearing selected scenes from the first and second of its three acts in Disney's acoustic would have done the trick. Adès focuses here on Prospero's relationships between his daughter, Miranda, and the spirit Ariel, both of whom he will lose. The writing for Ariel is breathtaking. This is surely the highest and fastest coloratura writing in all opera, and Cyndia Sieden, who sang the premiere, must be heard to be believed. Adès' Prospero is anguished and only sometimes warm. Simon Keenlyside, who also created this part at Covent Garden, made him a compelling tortured tyrant. Adès concluded with the love duet between Miranda (Patricia Risley) and Ferdinand (Toby Spence), melodically lush and rhapsodic yet with just enough harmonic eccentricity not to seem neo-Romantic slush.
The Sibelian and Tchaikovskian context emphasized, as did Adès, storm, love and Prospero's predicament. On the podium, Adès had a firm grip on Tchaikovsky and a sense of Sibelius' shifts between ferocity (Adès added the opening storm music, not in the suite) and delicacy. He is an emotive conductor with much to say about this music. His big-boned and sociable piano playing in Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio and Schubert's "Trout" Quintet on Tuesday night must have helped him gain the Philharmonic players' respect. But Friday's long and difficult program did sound as though it needed more time to settle in.
Lastly, a tip for anyone who happens to be Internet savvy, curious about Adès' Violin Concerto, and a night owl: ABC Classic FM, an Australian radio station, will broadcast the London premiere (from last summer's Proms) Wednesday at 1 a.m. PST. You can stream it at http://www.abc.net.au/classic .