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Interview Transcript: Thomas Adès, 2012

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Thomas Adès [00:00:00] I was born in North London, and my parents, my mother is an academic, an art historian and curator of exhibitions. My father is a translator of poetry. So I guess it's on the artistic side of the spectrum.

Brian McCreath [00:00:19] Did you start taking music lessons very early on?

TA [00:00:23] I was playing, the answer is I was playing the piano for myself very early. I can't remember when I started, is the usual story, but started learning piano strangely late. I was about 11, which is late, but I think it was because I was so determined to just play how I wanted, and no one ever thought to say, you know, my parents were the opposite of, let's say, a parent who says, "You've got to learn the violin from the age of three," or something like that. They were the opposite. They didn't want to push me into anything. And actually, I had to almost say, you know, at some point, "I think I should be pushed a little bit to have lessons." And they said, "Oh, yeah, OK." So I started learning when I was 11.

BMcC [00:01:04] Your career has taken the form of pianist and conductor and composer. Have you ever felt the pressure to choose one path or the other, or does it get competitive among those roles?

TA [00:01:17] Well, if some law was passed that you were only allowed to do one of them, I would be compelled, I'm afraid, to choose composition. Whether or not that's what I'm best at, I'm afraid that that just has to come first, because in the end, no one else can write my pieces. And other people can conduct, you know, just as well as I can and play the piano, indeed. So that would be the answer.

BMcC [00:01:43] But as a conductor, do you find that the pieces you conduct - for instance, this week with Sibelius and Prokofiev - do they somehow inform or offer new insights to ideas that you yourself are playing with as a composer?

TA [00:01:59] I think yes, absolutely. And all the pieces in this program I've actually been very close to since early teenage years. So I'm sure there must be something I've learned from these three pieces over the years.

BMcC [00:02:14] How did the creation of this program come about? Was it pretty much your sketching out of ideas or did you work with the BSO to put the pieces together?

TA [00:02:23] It was both, really. I mean, we got to the program fairly quickly, having decided that we'd like to have Sibelius['s] Luonnotar with my piano concerto In Seven Days. They're both creation stories, one is the Finnish, obviously, and one is the Genesis one. And then we thought it would be nice for Kirill Gerstein, the pianist, to play a piano concerto, too, but it would have to be a short one. So the obvious one is Prokofiev['s] First Concerto, which is the most brilliant of all short piano concertos, if not all piano concertos. And I think, and Sibelius['s] Sixth Symphony compliments Luonnotar very well, because it's Sibelius in his most purified and remote mood.

BMcC [00:03:11] What does that mean? Sibelius in his most purified?

TA [00:03:16] Well, he said that the Sixth Symphony, he was offering the public a clear cold glass of water in the age of cocktails. And, well, it was actually the '20s, you know, really. And that's really what it is. It's very, uh... It's not.. People often say it's austere. It's not that at all. It's just wonderfully pure. There's no additives in it, if you like. And [you] really feel it's him writing it, you know, as for the angels or something. And Luonnotar, the song that Dawn Upshaw is going to sing, it's nine minutes long, I mean, it's not exactly a song. It's more of a tone poem with voice. It's one of Sibelius's most visionary, possibly the most visionary piece he wrote. It's dated 1911-12, which actually puts it in the same year as the Prokofiev Piano Concerto, which is, it's basically one hundred years ago, you know, more or less, give or take a year. But so much of the piece could have been written today. He opened a door in Luonnotar into harmonic worlds that were not available to anyone else at that time. It's not atonal or anything like that. It's just highly extended. And the vision at the end of the piece of the firmament being created from this egg is just a tremendous sound. And the harmony is very unusual indeed. So it's, I love to do this piece. In Symphony Hall, it will, I hope, sound particularly mysterious and wonderful with that greatest of all acoustics.

BMcC [00:05:00] The creation theme of In Seven Days makes an obvious pairing for Luonnotar, as you said. Did you have Luonnotar in mind at all as you created In Seven Days?

TA [00:05:12] Absolutely not. It's the funniest thing. And it's only doing them in the same program [that] I realized - I mean, some subconscious level, I'm quite sure that his way of describing the kind of pre-creation of the beginning of the piece, with the strings and their very measured tremolo, and I realize now, just doing this concert, that that's what I've done as well. But the music's quite different. I mean, it's not the same effect at all, as it's not the same kind of creation myth. But it was not conscious, but almost certainly unconscious. Yeah.

BMcC [00:05:45] Was creation always what you wanted to accomplish with In Seven Days, and was that part of the commission, or was it simply the idea you brought to the table when accepting the commission?

TA [00:05:55] It was my idea, partly because the commission was actually for a work with a visual element. I mean, I call it a ballet, but it's not actually with dancers, it's with video. And the piece is often done that way. We've done it many times that way. So I wanted to have some kind of narrative structure, and that perhaps involved transformations of one thing into another thing in a fairly, you know, like a geometrical development sort of way. And the most obvious, that suddenly popped into my head, the most perfect structure for that would be the creation myth.

[00:06:32] And in a way, it's a little bit of a metaphor for, you know, a variation form. I mean, whether it's creation or evolution. I don't want to get into that now. But it's sort of some form of variation is involved. And it's very clear the way the story is told in Genesis, that we're talking about. It's not kind of seven different things happening. It's a sequence. They develop one from the other. So that's rather like the process of musical variation. And that's what - it really is a set of variations in the sense, this piece, because it comes from one common idea, which is kind of heard for the first time, in it's completely pure form just before the end. But you hear it all the way through in kind of various or other fragmented or whatever forms. So, uh, and we felt that [in] some places the video element sits really comfortably, some halls and some kind of situations. And I, we all felt that in Boston it wouldn't be quite, not for, maybe if we come [back], we'll do it with the video, but I think it's more comfortable to do it without in this hall. It depends on the hall a bit.

BMcC [00:07:45] Was it also always conceived as a piano concerto type of piece?

TA [00:07:51] Yeah, it is, it's kind of concertante. It's not, you know, it's more in the mold of, I don't know, the Prometheus of Scriabin or something like that. It's not really a concerto exactly. But the piano is obviously concertante soloist. The thing is, he comes in with, um, as it were, Light in the First Day, when it's "Let there be light, and there was light." That's the entrance of the piano. So I've made the bit before quite long because, of course, you know, no matter whether you look at it biblically or scientifically, that was several billion years, you know, so it's a long time. First day is by far the longest. It's like half the piece, really, almost.

[00:08:32] And it's a little bit, also, that I always love the Piano Concerto by [Ferruccio] Busoni, which has an extraordinarily long tutti. You think it's going to be a symphony, and then the soloist has been minding his own business, and suddenly comes crashing in with this tremendous thing, which is so huge that the orchestra just stops playing in shock. So I've always liked that. So I have a little bit of influence from that.

BMcC [00:08:57] What helps you to decide what commissions to take? You must have people knocking on your door all the time.

TA [00:09:03] It's a process of a little bit of serendipity, or a give and take. But I think, sometimes someone could say, "Would you like to write such and such?" And I'd never have thought of it. And it suddenly seems like a good idea. But usually it's pretty much, I might have a few, you know, possible, uh, formats floating around in my head. And, you know, if somebody says we'd like such as such, I think, oh, that could be this one. And one just hopes they coincide more often than not.

BMcC [00:09:38] Is there anything in particular that you can mention that's coming up in the way of a premiere that we can look forward to?

TA [00:09:45] The piece I'm finishing now is for the BBC Proms next year, and it's actually to commemorate Lutosławski's 100th anniversary. And it's a kind of one act scene, operatic scene for two singers, so that's what I'm doing at the moment. When I get back to London, that's what I'll be finishing.

BMcC [00:10:10] Thomas Adès, thank you for taking some time today.

TA [00:10:12] Thank you so much.

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