By Mark Swed
He turns on audiences as few composers do today, breaking down the barriers between high and low art. Yet his musical passions, as both pianist and conductor, also range from Couperin to Kurtág.
In 1990, a 19-year-old Thomas Adès was a runner up as pianist for the BBC Young Musician of the Year. Three years later he was the hottest young composer in London, with Andrew Porter calling him a bright new star of the British musical world. Adès’s 1995 opera, Powder Her Face, was a smash hit. Simon Rattle premiered the symphonic Asyla with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1997, and Adès received the prestigious and lucrative Grawemeyer Award for it. Artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, active as a pianist and conductor, Adès boasted a career’s worth of triumphs by the time he reached 30.
If this was the most spectacular entrance for a composer onto the music scene in the second half of the 20th century, now, a decade later, the British composer is well established as a leading voice in contemporary music and is Musical America’s Composer of the Year. I wrote British composer, but Adès has begun planting roots in America, dividing his time between London and L.A. He has a close association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is Gustavo Dudamel’s neighbor in the Hollywood Hills. In April, Adès will curate the orchestra’s “Aspects of Adès” festival and conduct the four orchestral programs.
New York catches up with Adès this winter. Alan Gilbert conducts the first New York Philharmonic performance of In Seven Days, a piano concerto (with the composer as soloist) that also employs a video component by Tal Rosner. At Carnegie Hall, eighth blackbird plays Catch, the St. Louis Symphony presents the New York premiere of Adès’s Violin Concerto, and the Emerson Quartet premieres The Four Quarters.
Meanwhile Adès has become an international go-to man for major occasions. Rattle began his tenure as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002 with Asyla, after five years already a contemporary classic. Adès’s second opera, The Tempest, a Royal Opera commission, helped usher in a renovated Covent Garden in London. Michael Tilson Thomas will open the New World Symphony’s revolutionary Frank Gehry-designed multi-media concert hall in Miami with a new Adès orchestral score in January.
Such success! Adès turns on audiences like few composers today. His music is grounded in the past, but entirely of the present and full of remarkable invention. Always on to something new, he never repeats himself. Critics take him seriously. Musicians find him a joy to work with.
Still, Adès’s ascent has not been nearly so smooth, and he is hardly without controversy. After the British press dubbed him the next Benjamin Britten, the young composer suffered an inevitable backlash when he then didn’t toe the predictable Britten line. Powder Her Face is a sexually frank tabloid shocker with a notoriously hilarious aria to be sung during oral sex.
On the eve of 2000, Adès angered New Yorkers. America: A Prophecy, one of the New York Philharmonic “messages for the millennium” commissions, was a warning few in the days before 9/11 wanted to hear. Adès’s somber score, eerie and incendiary, sets Mayan texts for solo soprano and chorus that prophesied attacks from the East on our cities, in a land where people are weak and drunk, where prophets and priests are blind. The text includes the f word, no doubt a first at a New York Philharmonic concert.
And what were we to make of The Tempest? With dazzling vocal writing in Powder Her Face, a 24-year-old composer elevated a camp romp about an aging duchess into a mature, touching tale with tragic Shakespearean overtones. But next he reduced Shakespeare’s visionary play to doggerel. Some of us at the premiere couldn’t at first square the ethereal illumination in the music with a libretto that turns Shakespeare’s language into sing-song verse. It took time to appreciate how Adès simplifies the surface in order to discover new areas in which to dive into spiritual depths.
Adès’s post-historical style is a challenge to describe. His mother, Dawn Adès, is an acclaimed art historian specializing in Surrealism and Dada, which suggests the composer had an early exposure to art that gives free reign to associations. In any case, Adès’s music revealed from the start a composer confident in his many musical passions, gleefully asserted.
Those loves include the whimsical harpsichord music of Couperin, the sublime melodic lyricism of Schubert, a love-hate relationship with Brahms, an obsession with Stravinsky and Janáček. He is drawn to the quirkiness of Kurtág and the sonic expressivity of Ligeti. He finds inspiration from literature, the visual arts, and film. He startled Los Angeles audiences last season by conducting an ecstatically color-drenched performance of Respighi’s Feste Romane. He is a Messiaen man, as well. On his final “Aspects of Adès” program, the composer will conduct Messiaen’s last orchestral score, Éclairs sur l’au-delà.
Aspects of all these composers are aspects of Adès, along with a knack for wild melodic figures that stick in the ear and extravagant repeated sonic gestures that make sure they stay there for a long time. It is not untypical for a piece like Asyla to honor the past—its four movements are almost those of a standard symphony, and sonata form is applied in the first. But the drug ecstasy and the sound of the disco enters into the careening mix as well. The title is the plural of asylum, and the composer saw both the implications of madhouse and sanctuary as two sides of the same elaborate coin.
Perhaps it is the example of Surrealism’s emotional guilelessness that empowers this encompassing of emotional extremes and that drives Adès’s uninhibited breaking down of barriers between high and low art. In his recent orchestral score, Tevot, these extremes become greater: The loud music is more piercing, the soft passages are stiller, the agitation is greater, and the peace better earned. A new opera, for 2014, will be Adès’s next major project. Neither the subject nor commissioning companies are yet announced. But whatever it is and wherever it lands, the opera, as do all major Adès efforts, will cause a stir. •
Mark Swed is music critic of the Los Angeles Times.