Thomas Adès, BSO’s first-ever Artistic Partner, has assumed “an unprecedented role created to showcase the composer-conductor-pianist-curator’s many interests and talents on various collaborative levels.” This past Thursday evening, annotator Robert Kirzinger’s description came alive as Adès took to the podium at Symphony Hall to conduct the world premiere of his own BSO-commissioned piano concerto, in which Kirill Gerstein’s partnership figured significantly in the development. Works of Liszt and Tchaikovsky filled out the evening.
Quarrying, flicking, pumping, snapping, and dancing—sometimes the old-fashioned way—only suggest a few of the movements with which Thomas Adès graphed the Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Adès right arm orbited in full-sized-like windmills, the left hand signaling the tiniest gradation. Specifying his every action would essentially recreate the Liszt choreographically. Since his first appearance as conductor of the BSO in 2011, Adès showed surprising growth.
Birthed as bone-chilling drama, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz achieved nothing less than a tour-de-force intensity—emotionally and physically. Flute trills and harp glissandos wisped temptation with an excellently tuned and possessed orchestra. It was devilishly captivating rebirth all the way.
One had to wonder why several winds began warming up and rehearsing only moments following Adès’s final bow, which allowed little time to savor BSO’s chilling Mephisto.
As a composer, Thomas Adès has also noticeably evolved, evidenced in his 2019 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Recall his future-seeking early works displaying improvisatory tendencies, form-freeing and complex rhythm-detailing explorations. We learn that this new work “is a ‘PROPER’ piano concerto.” The composer even provided program notes that traded technical insider talk with imaginative correlations: “a three-chord call to arms, and then a tumbling theme for piano and orchestra, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of a clarinet solo, heralding a burlesque canon.”
Perhaps it was the composer’s curatorial side to have the Faber and Faber score made available to reviewers both electronically and in hard copy. Turning the pages of the large score, some 16 inches in height, would become unviable in Symphony Hall, the swooshing pages winding up a distraction to nearby concert-goers. Yet with some prior study, more listening surely would reveal the deeper craft and imagination of composer and pianist latent on first encounter.
Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concerto for Piano Orchestra calls for 12 winds, 10 brass, tympani, 3 percussion players, and strings. The Allegramente opened with an unadulterated iconic harmony from the Masters. Departing from buckets of 20th-21st– century gravitas, the Adès cheerfully introduced itself, yet not long into the movement, making sense of it all often felt borderline. Color-struck orchestral swells meant going somewhere as they did in the past, where we were going might have had modern mixed in. “The second movement Andante gravemente consists of a chordal introduction” suggesting a classical paralleling of those gorgeously elusive voicings of Duke Ellington.
Such orchestral wizardry throughout the concerto at times tamed the piano. Arpeggios, octaves, streaming seventh chords, and a good many other newly dressed items of traditional pianism alternately peeked through the orchestral curtain with pure soloing. Kirill Gerstein labored, synced, and shined ultimately as a spellbinder. Attention never once waned throughout this Adès-Gerstein-BSO world premiere. [Click HERE for a live video excerpt.]
The finale Allegro giojoso headed for a “final resolution on the call to arms,” an all-out dazzler. This brightly recalibrated classical cadential flourish ended by markedly re-announcing the concerto’s central tonality of F. And that would serve as a link to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor.
The Adès-BSO tectonic iteration of the Russian composer’s breakthrough symphony overwhelmed with freshness yet eschewed eccentricities. There was one exception. That was the p (soft) marking of Tchaikovsky of the Scherzo (Pizzicato ostinato): Allegro taken down to at least a ppp reducing pluckiness to a near inaudible whisper.
Symphony Hall blazed in music-making.