IN: Reviews

Tempest in a Fascinating Teapot


Thomas Adès (Stu Rosner photo)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra presented a more integrated, yet diverse, program than usual on Friday, March 25. The program consisted of three compositions, by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Thomas Adès, based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and a violin concerto by Adès (pronounced “A-dis”). Drawing them all together was Adès as the guest composer-conductor.

He turned forty earlier this month. To have accomplished so much so young, as composer, conductor, and pianist, is phenomenal in our time (pace Mozart). Six festivals or organizations have already focused on his music, and he is the youngest composer to have been given the prestigious Grawemeyer Award (in 2000, for his large orchestral work, Asyla, performed by the BSO under the direction of Christoph von Dohnanyi in 2002). The list of orchestras he has conducted is long, as is the number of his recordings as a pianist. March 14th saw the first of five different concerts, “Aspects of Adès,” for which he is the conductor and pianist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with whom he has had a special curatorial relationship during the last four years. (He has homes in both Hollywood and London.)

So how did he fare with the BSO? Very well: they were with him all the way, which doesn’t always happen with a guest conductor. They played absolutely on his beats, responding instantly to his broad but explicit gestures. In the opening Tchaikovsky he called for a vigorous but controlled accelerando (not in the score), and they gave it to him on target, with increasing excitement. Elsewhere the required rumbles in the low strings and brasses were distinct, and Adès’s  ingenious instrumental pairings were in tune and resonant. The orchestra’s famed clarity shone intact. Before the second work began, he turned to the audience, saying he would be brief, but that he wanted to say what an honor it was to be here, and to conduct this amazing orchestra. (Loud and brief applause before he said a few more words about his Violin Concerto.) There is no question how excelling as composer, conductor, and pianist informs his creativity in all three domains.

Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy, The Tempest, op. 18, was written and first performed in 1873, and has been said by John Wiley in “New Grove II” to be a “collage of sound pictures,” à propos of the plot. The string sections were huge, including six contrabasses, no doubt to underline the long, threatening storm scene at the beginning and recapitulated at the end, while all the other strings played running triplet chords on three strings simultaneously. The general effect was a bit muddy, but seems to be the fault of the composition rather than the performance.

Adès’s violin concerto, Concentric Paths, op. 23, written in 2003, was performed by the soloist, Anthony Marwood, for whom it was written and by whom it was premièred in 2005 in Berlin. He also was the soloist during the American première with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2006. He is a lithe and highly expert violinist, playing a 1736 instrument by Carlo Bergonzi, and teaches nearby during the summer at the Yellow Barn Festival in Vermont. The score calls for a large orchestra, including a variety of percussion instruments. There were far fewer strings than the Tchaikovsky, with only three contrabasses. The title Concentric Paths is intended to suggest recurring cycles, or what has become known as “spiral form”; that is, a musical idea spins out, returning to its starting place, then spins out again with variants, returning enriched to the same starting place, and so on. The first movement, “Rings,” is highlighted by shimmering violins, and marked by a downward, and then upward harmonic movement, sharply punctuated at the end. The longest second movement, “Paths,” comprises a fascinating series of pairings, first of the solo violin with trumpets, then with low brass, then with mid-range winds, then with percussion, and finally with low strings, as if returning home to family. The third and final movement, “Rounds,” is indeed a kind of rondo with various instruments paired with the solo violin which soars above them, seemingly not paying attention. The piece ends on a merciful (fortissimo) unison in F. Marwood’s performance, and the BSO’s, was spectacular, with clearly demarcated sounds at the command of the conductor-composer.

After intermission came two works representing Sibelius’s foray into The Tempest. He wrote incidental music for the play in 1925, after many delays first performed as part of a theatrical production of Shakespeare’s play at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1929. In 1927, as the next to last of his compositional oeuvre, he created a separate arrangement of this music for orchestra (op. 109), that included the Prelude and two suites. We heard the Prelude and the first Suite, the latter comprising ten brief movements: “The Oak Tree,” representing the personification of Ariel, with flute, strings, and harp predominating in a gentle “oom-pah” sound (who knew this of Sibelius!); “Humoresque” (just that); “Caliban’s Song”; “The [joyful] Harvesters”; “Canon”; “Scena”; “Intrada—Berceuse”; “Entr’acte” (like film music, suggesting ominously what is to come); “Ariel’s Song”; and “The Storm,” which, like the Prelude, was properly roiling. All this was a side of Sibelius we didn’t know, and Adès clearly relished it.

The concert concluded with Adès’s own selections from The Tempest, his first full-scale opera written in 2003 commissioned by the Royal Opera House of London to a libretto by Meredith Oakes after Shakespeare’s play. (Adès wanted a rhyming but simpler version of the story.) The following year he made a selection of four scenes, lasting about twenty-five minutes, first performed under his direction by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005. The role of Ferdinand was originated in London by tenor Toby Spence, who performed it in Los Angeles and here. He has a lovely, rich, full (but not imperious) true voice with perfect diction, a real delight. British soprano Kate Royal, sensitively and with clear articulation performing the role of Miranda here, had also originated that role in London. British baritone Christopher Mailman, who sang Prospero here with equally fine voice and diction, also had originated the role of Sebastian in the London première. The incredibly difficult role of Ariel was sung here by the Israeli coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann mostly known for her film music (sound track of The Da Vinci Code), but who has sung under Adès with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Adès calls for an extremely high tessitura — seventeen high Es in her first scene! — much of it in wordless melismas, or what frankly sounds like screaming, a thankless form of vocal writing, apparently intended by Adès to represent otherworldliness. The highlight was the duet between Miranda (Royal) and Ferdinand (Spence) in the final scene, ending in the striking pitch class (set of pitches an octave apart) unison with the words, “My lover smiling / Blessed asylum / Beautiful island / All I desire.”

For this performance, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus members were offered complimentary tickets as BSO guests in recognition of their hours of service to the Orchestra. Although there were still some empty seats in the audience, the concert, such a fine example of Adès’s musical persona, was warmly received.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. After the many disappointments due to cancellations during this BSO season, including Sir Colin Davis’ “mysterious on-going illness” (he is currently conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in London), it was a pleasure to attend this incredibly rewarding concert.

    I attended the Saturday evening performance, and agree with Mary Wallace Davidson’s review with a couple of comments. Coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s singing throughout was amazing, at no time did I have the impression that she was screaming. All works are new to me, with the exception of the Tchaikovsky, I will go back to them repeatedly.

    From the first note of the concert I was very impressed with the remarkable control Ades had over the orchestra, especially considering this is debut with the BSO. Members of the orchestra seemed to like him and gave all they had for him. Of course this is not always true of all guest conductors. Curiously he seemed to be a little nervous. Saturday’s performance was very well attended and both Ades’ works were given standing ovations.

    In my opinion “The Tempest” is a major work by any standard; I suspect that repeated hearings of the Violin Concerto “Concentric Paths” will reveal more rewards.

    The inept BSO management could go a long way to redeem themselves by engaging Mr. Ades as a frequent guest conductor, composer in residence, or even music director.

    Bob Summers

    Comment by Robert Summers — March 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm

  2. Mary Wallace Davidson’s review is right on the mark!

    I attended the Friday evening concert and loved every minute of it. Although long curious re: Ades’ music, I had never heard any of it before.. How wonderful it feels to be won over so completely by this great modern composer. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thomas Ades composes with respect to “form”, logical development, fascinatingly complex orchestration and occasional legato moments which are wrenching in their odd beauty. The enthusiasm of the audience was partially due to the approachability of Ades’ music: perhaps to listeners this was an unexpected pleasure.

    Difficult to believe that the fascinating Sibelius TEMPEST was a BSO premiere!

    That the BSO musicians and the soloists enjoyed working under Ades was quite obvious: they played and sang brilliantly. Let’s hope Maestro Ades returns to the BSO frequently!

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 27, 2011 at 7:58 pm

  3. Possible front runner for the Music Director job?

    Comment by Audience Member — March 28, 2011 at 9:30 am

  4. Agree with everyone’s take (“screaming” is, of course, in the ear of the beholder), but would add one not insignificant point. In his spoken remarks to the audience, Ades expressed appreciation not only for the great Orchestra but for the great Hall. After his time in the new L.A. hall, being in Symphony Hall–I assume for the first time–must have been thrilling for him. We tend to take it for granted, but Symphony Hall remains one of the three magnificent large concert venues in the world. It would, indeed, be better than nice, were the BSO to offer its first “composer in residence” position to so great a talent and so gracious a person.

    Comment by Dan Farber — March 28, 2011 at 9:37 am

  5. I’m not sure Ades would have his heart in conducting, although it’d be a coup for us to have him. I think I’d rather see the BSO bring in a music director who would collaborate closely with the likes of Ades, whose music I admire very much.

    Comment by Mark — March 28, 2011 at 9:42 am

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday’s performance of the program. I’ve been a big fan of Adés’s music for some time now, but this was my first hearing of the Concerto. Really beautiful music, though I might contend Ed’s suggestions about Adés’s Concerto with respect to form. Aside from conforming to a traditional 3-movement approach with regards to tempo, the inner workings of each movement seemed amorphous to me. Coming from the highly dramatic model of Asyla, the Violin Concerto seemed much more reigned-in, even understated. I really felt that the beginnings and endings of each movement were unmotivated (despite the obsessive motivic saturation) by any sense of dramatic narrative, almost arbitrary– but everything in between was *extremely* gratifying. This guy is a veritable master of orchestration.

    I also have to say that Hila Plitmann *completely* won me over. Adés does a brilliant job of musically distinguishing Ariel from the human characters in the Tempest. I don’t think it was, as Mary states (perhaps even quoting the composer?), about “other-worldliness” as much as it is about Ariel being a air-spirit, and really using the voice in a way that is constantly on the limits of what we perceive as “human”. I found Plitmann’s performance of this absurdly difficult music to be far superior to anything I’ve heard in other recordings of the opera (no discredit to Cyndia Sieden). No doubt, everything in Ariels part is unintelligible. But I think annunciation/declamation issues were not necessarily the highest priorities on Adés’s list while composing the opera.

    I’m not sure how realistic any of the above conjectures are on the BSO approaching Adés for a residency– but they have my vote! But I’m with Mark, while a brilliant conductor (amazing interp of the Tchaik), he is first and foremost a composer. And I can guarantee that his writing process is an extremely demanding, disciplined, and time-consuming one.

    Comment by Peter Van Zandt Lane — March 28, 2011 at 11:21 am

  7. Fun to read so many enthusiastic comments! Friday’s was a terrific performance and it was great to see so many younger faces in the audience. Free wine and snacks after the performance with composer and violinist in attendance were a great add-ons.

    Adès is an absurd candidate for music director — conducting is not his metier, however well he has mastered a limited repertoire. Would be great as composer in residence or just programming adviser.

    Just a guess, but I suspect the orchestra members well understand their situation. Everyone imagines they are auditioning orchestras, but it is equally true that conductors are auditioning them. Word gets around, conductors talk to their managers and other musicians, the soloists from these concerts talk to colleagues, etc. The BSO doesn’t want to get a reputation for giving less than their best or posing difficulties for guests. People are sure to be asking how they are holding up, how they are responding to the director-less year(s) ahead, etc. It’s in everyone’s interest that the buzz be as upbeat as possible. Word on the street counts. The quality of our guest conductors and future music director are at stake. Not always easy for the players week in and week out, but recruitment is a two-way street.

    Comment by Bill — March 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm

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