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.