Adès, Salonen, and Mehta display take their stands
By Donna Perlmutter - 02-23-06
From Los Angeles City Beat
What’s in a stick? More than you think. Thomas Adès, the gifted young Brit who is a composer, pianist, and conductor, dropped his baton. Esa-Pekka Salonen, boss of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, decided to give his up. Valery Gergiev never bothered with one; how could he, with the fingers of both hands always a-flutter? Simon Rattle, whose brain distinctly operates all the time, chooses judicious moments to put his down. And Zubin Mehta has formed a natural bond with his; it’s part of his anatomy.
All this came to mind when Adès, on location here at Walt Disney Concert Hall, took the Philharmonic podium recently – and, over several weeks, conducted his works in small ensembles and played chamber music with a select few orchestra members.
In a burst of agitated excitement that came during Tchaikovsky’s swirling fantasia on The Tempest, Adès’s baton went flying, fell to the floor, and was retrieved by a first-row string player. It can happen like that. It did to the equally excitable Bernstein. But the 35-year-old musician, not formally trained as a stick-meister and not exactly on top of his game as far as technique goes, didn’t drop a beat.
Forget that this Philharmonic bill, with Shakespeare’s play as the inspiration for all entries except Adès’s Violin Concerto (championed expertly by Anthony Marwood), looked clever enough on paper. What it turned out to be, though, was program music without a program – one discrete episode after another, connecting links unknown.
Until, that is, he got to the pièce de résistance: scenes from his opera, chronicling the travails of characters on Prospero’s stormy/serene mythical island.
Then we could hear what all the fuss was about. Adès’s Tempest, which premiered two years ago at Covent Garden, is gripping. It’s a taut, luscious amalgam of orchestral writing both clear and dense, its shards of clashing chords alternating with poignant lyricism, its melodic lines interrupted and twisted along a highly emotional narrative path – all of it delivered as a structural whole.
Adès, neither as composer nor conductor, goes the safe, careful route. On the podium, he hangs over the orchestra, rising up on his toes, reaching out his arms as though to touch someone. No thought seems given to creating a physical image on the podium. An ungainly look? So be it.
Salonen, on the other hand, is nothing if not facile and sleek, his kinetic maneuvers smoothed into an integrated whole – often mesmerizing.
At a recent concert, one in the “Casual Fridays” series, he spoke to the audience before turning to Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony. “I’m no longer going to use a baton,” he declared, surrounded by orchestra players in mufti (not in their usual black, formal garb). “Because I want to be more like a colleague than a policeman.”
He then went on to lead his reduced orchestra in an exquisitely pinpointed account of the grim, harrowing work fixed to songs on death sung by two fabulous artists: Tatiana Pavlovskaya, whose soprano powers are astounding, and Matthias Goerne, whose plush, edgeless baritone finds myriad dimension in music of heart-sick poetry by Rilke and Lorca.
A few weeks earlier, Salonen showed up at Disney as an audience member – to hear his orchestra play Bruckner’s Eighth under Zubin Mehta – and perhaps learn how this maestro would cope with the late Romantic symphonist who suffered musical logorrhea.
Mehta, who swept through the 70-minute extravaganza without a score (as per usual), gave the players their head and more. The immense pleasure they telegraphed digging into the work’s big visceral activity – its blasts of majesty, alternated with lyric warmth and tenderly turned motives – was palpable.
Afterwards, Mehta sped away in his car, license plate M8TA. Baton-wielders seem to strike all sorts of poses.
Adès ends his L.A. stay with a range of moods
The cherished conductor has already been invited back.
By Mark Swed - February 23, 2006
"NO word from Tom" is the best-known aria from "The Rake's Progress." Stravinsky wrote his end-of-the-road opera in the West Hollywood hills overlooking Sunset Boulevard between 1948 and 1951. But afterward, he could no longer sustain its neoclassical style; the powerful 12-tone method of his neighbor and nemesis, Schoenberg, was too persuasive. World War II had ended. The Atomic Age had dawned. Stravinsky desired a new direction, a word from Tom.
Half a century later, it's we who've got it. At least, Thomas Adès' two-week residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which concluded Tuesday night with a Green Umbrella concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall, felt like that revelatory word. No, the British Adès is not the next Stravinsky, any more than he is the next Benjamin Britten. Nor is he the first composer to successfully find a style that acknowledges the still evident pull of earlier classical music (Stravinsky's late 12-tone pieces never caught on the way his earlier music did) and everything else that is out there these days.But he has found a way to bring together a lot stylistically. His music is a celebration both of what classical music has been and of what it can be. It doesn't always smile. In fact, it can be troubled by a bittersweet, succulent melancholy and shot through with chilling, sharp attacks of anger. But when Adès does smile, the whole world seems to smile with him — or might, if more of the world paid attention to this marvelous music.
Last week, having performed chamber music by Beethoven and Schubert with Philharmonic players and then conducted the orchestra in the U.S. premieres of his effervescent new Violin Concerto and enchanted excerpts from his second opera, "The Tempest," Adès took to the piano again. He performed an enthralling program of Stravinsky's violin and piano music with Anthony Marwood (the soloist in the Violin Concerto) at the Doheny Mansion for the Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary's College.
And Tuesday, he oversaw his Green Umbrella outing with the Philharmonic's New Music Group as composer, curator, conductor and pianist. He led one of his earliest pieces, the Chamber Symphony, written in 1991 and an odd, nose-thumbing (but not completely) homage to Schoenberg. He played in his recent neoclassical (but not entirely) Piano Quintet. He programmed Hungarian composer György Kurtág's poignant but ferociously penetrating song cycle, "Scenes From a Novel." And he conducted the first U.S. performances of Italian modernist Niccolò Castiglioni's hauntingly offbeat "Cantus Planus" along with his own fantastical, darkly sensual "The Origin of the Harp," for three clarinetists, three violists, three cellists and two percussionists.It was quite a night, full of ghosts having a heck of a party. I don't know if Stravinsky looked on. He might still have been hung over after the party given by Adès and Marwood with the violin/piano arrangements, which concluded with the "Danse Russe" from "Petrushka" as animated as I've ever heard it.But Schoenberg might have gotten a chuckle out of the way the then 20-year-old Adès brightly warmed up his Chamber Symphony, Opus 2, with a jazz drum solo before heading into darker territory. After that piece, Adès began a decade of manic deconstruction, his music finding its own highly distinctive character by pulling apart music from many different styles and centuries, always surprising but always making sense.
Lately, Adès has evinced a neoclassical bent. The 2001 Piano Quintet is a rapturous 20-minute work in Schubertian sonata form that keeps going deliriously astray.No one can say quite what Kurtág's style is. He seems to have absorbed and then condensed into something all his own much of the 20th century. Accompanied by violin, bass and cimbalom, the soprano Elizabeth Keusch (a last-minute replacement for Valdine Anderson, sidelined by the flu) conveyed Kurtág's quirky extravagances as well as the pain and sorrow of 15 short songs to existential Russian texts by Rimma Dalos. Because she was called in suddenly, Keusch could prepare only the first half of Castiglioni's "Cantus Planus," a series of tiny 12-tone songs to peculiar 17th century religious texts.Composed for two sopranos who play cat and mouse with each other in their highest registers, the vocal writing is even more outrageous than Kurtág's. Cynthia Sieden was the other soprano, and the performance was ingratiatingly flamboyant. Castiglioni was among Adès' teachers (as well as Esa-Pekka Salonen's), and from him Adès clearly learned to go beyond style, to go where no one else does.In the last two weeks, Adès has won an enthusiastic following in Los Angeles. The Philharmonic has asked him back next season. A long-range relationship appears to be developing. The word from Tom has been worth the wait.