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Adès Takes Charge at BSO


Thomas Adès, the Boston Symphony’s first-ever Artistic Partner, has arrived: he leaves his indelible marks around town, his derring-do as pianist, conductor, composer, and lecturer much chronicled in these pages. At the BSO’s helm between Hallowe’en and our phantasmagorical national election, the 45-year-old Londoner wielded a mailed fist in a velvet glove through riveting readings of early Britten, late Sibelius, and his own take-no-prisoners mummers’ play, Totentanz.

Adès led the BSO with baritone Mark Stone and mezzo soprano Christianne Stotijn, cast as Death and his 15 victims, in texts that animate a medieval frieze from Lübeck’s Marienkirche. With brisk vigor, grace and economy of gesture, Adès foists the stark and timeless lesson upon our rude age: Death leads us, one and all, in our final boogaloo. Stone, as Preacher, navigates spiky, eldritch variations on the age-old Dies Irae with shrill piccolos and clubfooted drums in 2/6, then dons the clacking skeleton outfit—wily, bold, unctuous in turn—in abrupt pas de deux with Stotijn’s clerics and laymen, high to low, curt with pope and emperor but kindly to parish clerk and peasant. Vocal exchanges often weave into duos, as gleefully dense textures reign, peak, threaten to drown Death and victim alike, and gradually subside. The Reaper’s final seductions—wooing a coy maiden and calming a hapless baby—nod frankly to courtly sarabande and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, as all winds down in cosmic entropy.

Adès’ 18-minute companion pieces showed a keen ear for the precocious and neglected[1]. Benjamin Britten, an avowed and abiding influence, wrote Sinfonia da Requiem in 1939, between his mother’s death and Hitler’s rise. At 27, Britten’s astonishing command of orchestral drama (vying tonal centers), vivid colors, huge unisons, and stark timbres—and his lingering sense of loss and outrage over war’s human toll – all presage his monumental War Requiem. Oily alto saxophone lines insinuate jazz-age flair and decadence. Between the serpentine Lacrymosa and searching Requiem, a prestissimo, macabre Dies Irae rears up, strings slashing, brass in protest, skeletal xylophones and muted brass shades dug up and airborne in a ghoulish Last Judgment.

Thomas Adès with  Christianne Stotijn and Mark Stone (Hilary Scott photo)
Thomas Adès with Christianne Stotijn and Mark Stone (Hilary Scott photo)

In Tapiola, his final, dreamiest tone-poem, Sibelius leads us once again into alpine forests, the realm of Tapio, god of Nature. We fall under the mystical thrall of woodland sprites and darkling trolls, peer beneath ferns and piny carpets at scurrying critters great and small, feel fierce Arctic winds through shrieking horns and strings’ weird harmonics. Sinuous countermelodies and seductive cross-rhythms hint at Ravel, Holst. Dissonances mount and chaos threatens, but all ends well: Tapio, the Green Man of lichen beard, benignly sanctions the humming, harmonious activity. We become enchanted, primeval, whole again. Sibelius lived another thirty years in epic silence.

All three pieces open with bold timpani and brass, and end in vastly differing quietudes: the Britten in wary acceptance, the Sibelius in Nature’s consonance, the Adès as Death’s turgid two-step[2] grinds all—indignant pontiff to addled babe—into the primordial ooze.

[1] The BSO had performed the Britten only twice since its 1942 premiere, Tapiola    only twice since the 1930s—no Finlandia, this—both under the championing baton of Serge Koussevitsky.

[2] Oh, that tuba, bass drum, contrabassoon, and contraforte!

Fred Bouchard, lifelong music journalist for Downbeat Magazine and The New York City Jazz Record and other publications, has lately contributed to Fodor’s Boston. He recently retired from teaching music journalism at Berklee College of Music.


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

  1. Through one of those occasional scheduling tangles that bedevils any organization, I too was booked to review the BSO this weekend, and attended on Thursday. Fortunately, Fred has well captured my sentiments about the program, so all I’ll do here is add come corroborative detail.

    All three works on the program called for large orchestral forces, and there were quite a few faces in the band, some familiar and some not, outside the usual BSO complement. Interestingly, Adès conducted the Britten alongside his work at the 2013 Proms when the latter got its premiere (both performances are available on YouTube); the Sibelius was new for this series. The Britten is a stunning piece, perhaps the best of the evening, and with the possible exception of a flattening of dynamic contrast on the side of loud, Adès conducted it with exceptional clarity and drive. In an interview that preceded his Proms performance, Adès said he thought the saxophone solos (beautifully played by Adam Pelandini) related to wraith-like figures being painted at the time by Francis Bacon, wisps of souls. I was curious about the middle movement, the “Dies Irae” dance of death, which Britten made especially harsh when he learned that the hitherto unnamed commissioner of the piece was the Japanese government (they were at war in Asia then, but hadn’t yet joined the Axis). The most raucously jagged music in this almost Shostakovian scherzo took the shape of an Irish jig; did Britten think Death was Irish?

    The linear clarity in Adès’s conducting was especially evident in the Sibelius, which in his hands gained a strong drive and unity that one often finds a bit absent in that composer’s fragmented writing, so bravo there too. It was a virtuoso turn for the whole orchestra, and notably the only call-out during the applause was for the entire viola section.

    As to Adès’s own piece, I was of two minds. It is obviously a major sustained work with both somber and merry aspects. The “death as leveler” theme is pretty common, but his means were (I hate always to have to use this word with Adès’s music) clever, assigning all the “victim” roles to the mezzo (kind of like Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Alec Guinness played all the murder victims) and projecting through the settings a clear musical trajectory. The piece is divided into two large sections, with the first almost all loud, expressionistic and harsh, and the second mellowing out musically (even when the texts were not all that kind to the victims), and softening for the Parish Clerk, and especially the Maiden and the Child. Fred was quite right to point to the morendo Mahler reference at the end; I thought the music for the Maiden evoked Schubert, though I didn’t hear any direct quotations. I also concur with Fred’s praise for the two soloists.

    Comment by Vance Koven — November 4, 2016 at 3:38 pm

  2. ” wrote Sinfonia da Requiem in 1939, between his mother’s death [1937] and Hitler’s rise.” Huh?

    Comment by Raymond — November 4, 2016 at 6:57 pm

  3. I saw the premiere of the Adès with the NY Philharmonic last season and both the Thursday and Saturday concerts with the BSO, and I can say the Saturday concert was a revelation. The Adès is just stunning and though quite dark, the range of emotions is vast.
    Singing in Symphony Hall is not easy and I could not hear a few of the very low vocal entrances, but they were doubled by low winds usually. Loved the Britten, but couldn’t care for the Sibelius; it sounded mushy throughout.
    I look forward to more of Adès music in Boston.

    Comment by Aaron — November 19, 2016 at 5:09 pm

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