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Symphony Hall Ablaze in Music-Making

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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.

Thomas Adès leads Kirill Gerstein and BSO (Winslow Townson photo)

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.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).  www.notescape.net

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  1. I attended this concert Saturday night. I wish I hadn’t. It was terrible. Gerstein tried to stretch the orchestra like a rubber band to all extremes and that doesn’t work!

    The Thomas Adès’s thing was just awful. The bso should have given the $ to the jimmy fund.

    Tchaikovsky’s Symphony was destroyed by tying to exaggerate the slow and fast parts to oblivion.

    Just bad news all around.

    Comment by David A. Gordon — March 10, 2019 at 11:41 am

  2. Otherwise the concert was ok?

    Comment by denovo2 — March 10, 2019 at 12:57 pm

  3. I try to go to at least one BSO performance each year to stay “calibrated” to what a top orchestra sounds like in one of the world’s great concert halls. I picked this concert for two reasons – I wanted to hear the Ades concerto, and the andante 2nd movement of the Tchaikovsky. I’d rather hear the Liszt transcribed for piano (I still haven’t gotten over Horowitz’s Symphony Hall performance of it 40 years ago), and the rest of the Tchaikovsky was thrilling when I was a teenager, but now a half century later I braced myself for the bombast of the 1st and 4th movement.

    It’s hard, maybe impossible, to objectively comment on a concert. I always wonder how my mood on a particular day affects my enjoyment. All kinds of factors influence the subjective response. A good parking spot is definitely a plus!

    With all that as prologue, I thought it was a very good concert (Friday afternoon), the orchestra played beautifully. No apologies, I enjoyed it, even the bombast. There seemed to be a motivic connection between the Liszt and the Ades, which answered the question of why the Liszt was even on the program. As for the Ades, I heard part of the interview on the Saturday night broadcast where the pianist said it took him a while to understand some of what was going on in the concerto. So a first time listener with no preparation would understandably have trouble making sense of some of it. But it’s definitely worth revisiting in the future. As for the Tchaikovsky, I was ironically a little put off by the 2nd movement’s noticeable breath taken by the strings in between each 4 bar phrase. Never heard it done that way before, and it seemed to make the legato theme a bit harsh. A minor quibble. Overall, a 3 1/2 star afternoon.

    Comment by Bob D. — March 10, 2019 at 2:14 pm

  4. We attended Thursday night (3/7). Liszt and Tchaikovsky did not disappoint. But I have to comment about Ades, In short, I was mesmerized by his piece. The frequent time signature changes gave made me feel like I was on an unanchored boat in high waves- either you go with it and enjoy the ride or don’t. I adored it. I admit a partiality to music that surprises me; I love not knowing what to expect. I loved the generous use of the percussion section. I loved Gerstein’s virtuosity, and the orchestra performed to perfection. What a gift to the ears and heart. As soon as it was over I was sorry that my schedule did not permit attending another performance over the next few weeks. I just want to hear it again and again- so much to unpack. I think his music requires a new way of listening- don’t try to fit it in the box of what we know. Listen with a blank canvas and feel what the music paints. I can’t wait to hear what he does next- count me among the club of those with unbridled enthusiasm for Ades’ work.

    Comment by Sarah Johnson — March 11, 2019 at 3:27 pm

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