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Interview Transcript: Thomas Adès, 2018

Return to The Exponential Creativity of Adès and the BSO

Thomas Ades [00:00:00] I mean, it's rather like inviting people for dinner. I mean, you just have a sort of sense that there'll be quite a lot of connections, actually, but there's nothing like a rigid theme. But it should be just a sort of sense of some kind of sympathetic conversation that they can have. And I mean, the link with the Stravinsky and my piece is simply that they're both orchestral works based on a stage piece with no characters and no dancers, but just the music. So that's something I really like. I find that that can often be very vivid when you've just got an orchestral piece that's drawn from something that was originally conceived for stage. There's something about that that's really always rather fun because the music doesn't have a sort of responsibility to say something just on its own, like a symphony. But it can just sort of exist and be, I hope, enjoyable. The Stravinsky is certainly enjoyable and I hope mine is as well. We'll see. [laughs]

Brian McCreath [00:01:01] Well, yes, I expect that yours will be quite enjoyable. I mean, it's such a vibrant piece of music, the suite from Powder Her Face. But I do wonder now, I mean, you're talking about these things drawn from theatrical works. Is the Powder Your Face suite meant to be one of those suites that is simply, well I don't want to say simply, but is a collection of the sort of highlight[s], the best musical moments, or is there a narrative attempt here to sort of portray, more or less, the arc of the opera in the concert suite?

TA [00:01:31] Yes, certainly there is a shape that reflects the drama of the opera. And so you can get a sense of how it goes without any specific scenes. And I had a few goes at this. I mean, I wrote a big piano solo piece, Concert Paraphrase, using a deliberately kind of 19th-century sounding Lisztian [title], because I think with those great Liszt paraphrases of Wagner or Verdi. And he's sitting at the piano, literally, going, "Oh that was an amazing moment when this happened or that happened," and trying to remember how the music went.

[00:02:09] And I was thinking it would be fun to do that with my own opera, as though I'd lost all the scores. And I was trying to reconstruct the sort of feel of it. And so I found a shape that the music all fell into naturally. And then I've used some of that for this orchestral suite. So, I mean, it does play more or less continuously. It's pretty much a half hour of music. So I just sort of say, sit back and it's like a kind of when they used to tell a simple version of a story, you know, on the radio or something, for children or the classic story, I hope will feel a bit like that. "Are you sitting comfortably?" they used to say.

BMcC [00:02:46] Yeah, "are you sitting comfortably," that's right, from the old BBC. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:02:51] Well, I am also kind of curious about yourself conducting and working with an orchestra on music from, I almost want to say, a former version of yourself, because none of us are the same as we were, you know, whatever it was, 25 years ago. What's it like for you to be working on music from 25 years ago? Do you feel like the same composer, or do you feel like, wow, that's a kind of a different person and I'm different now?

TA [00:03:16] Absolutely both at the same time. It's still definitely me. But I mean, you know, it's a little like looking at a photograph of oneself when I was 24 at most. And you could say there are things I can do musically, in terms of agility, then that I wouldn't do now. And, kind of vice versa in a way. But a friend of mine calls Powder Her Face my fountain of youth because I keep kind of going back to it, and the music has, I suppose it's got some kind of energy that I keep returning to. And it is invigorating. I mean, this is, I think, the third or fourth piece that I've drawn from it. And it's also partly because it was written for a tiny theater. So the orchestra was very small, back in London at the Almeida Theatre, which is very small, I mean, it's 200 seats or something. I don't know. Probably got that wrong, but it's small. And so this very small orchestra was having to do, I mean, huge amounts of stuff all the time. And, you know, with just two violinists or whatever, one percussionist, and one can struggle to play it with three or four. So which makes it very risky. And then sometimes the music will just disappear if one person looks the wrong way at the wrong moment. So it's quite nice to make a kind of, in a way, help it out a bit by making it, sort of, four horns instead of one or whatever. So beef it up so you can really hear the music.

BMcC [00:04:45] And then when it comes to [Stravinsky's] The Fairy's Kiss, I wonder what you would sort of think of as the way that Stravinsky made Tchaikovsky sound like Stravinsky. What did he do to Tchaikovsky's music? And what does it, whatever those techniques are or whatever methods, does that sort of inform your own work? Do you learn from that as a composer?

TA [00:05:06] It's such a miracle and it's a mystery as well. I mean, if I could only... It's like, what does he do to Pergolesi in Pulcinella? It's really hard to... It's not just one thing, is the answer, but what he's doing is taking it in and then breathing it out again. And it comes out as Stravinsky, but it's still got its own flavor. It's magical, and it's one of the great mysteries of music, how he did that. And, yes, it's just got this sort of natural feeling to it. And yes, I do. I do very much draw inspiration from that.

BMcC [00:05:44] It kind of reminds me of your Three Studies from Couperin, which the BSO has done here at some point in the last couple of years. I don't know, is that a fair comparison?

TA [00:05:53] I wouldn't say. You know, I think the difference might be that mine is... Well yeah, I suppose I can see what you're saying. But I mean, there is a, let's see, there's a kind of element when you're creative and you look at something from the past and you love it. But you also want to take it apart, to see how it might have been done. And, you know, [on] one level, it always remains a mystery: "And still, I don't really understand how he did it." But then you do discover things and connections that are in there. And that's what I think what happens in the Stravinsky.

BMcC [00:06:32] Well, and let's use that model as a starting point to talk about your cadenza for the Ligeti Violin Concerto. I wonder, first of all, why you decided to write this cadenza. I know that Ligeti said, you know, "Feel free to write your own cadenza." So the door was open. But what [was] your motivation was to begin with, and then, doing that, did you happen upon something or was anything revealed that showed you more about Ligeti than you had kind of realized before?

TA [00:07:01] Well, it's such an extraordinary thing to do if you're a composer of Ligeti's stature at that point in his life - and he was quite an old man, actually - to have a five movement piece, and most of the last movement is this cadenza, which he did not write. I'm sure that that cadenza is by Saschko Gawriloff, who gave the first performance. And that's why there's a long note in the score by Ligeti, along which he writes, "This cadenza, you should write your own. And it should incorporate a bit of this in a bit of that. And that's what we're looking for." And in a conversation with the violinist friend a few years ago, I said, "I think that, you know, one could try again with this cadenza" and see, you know, for example, and instead of coming back with the main theme after a cadenza normally [as] in, you know, Mozart or Beethoven, the orchestra will come crashing in, whatever, sneaking in, but coming in with the first theme. In the Ligeti, they come in with one page, which sounds like a little time machine breaking down, sputtering and stopping working. That's what happens. It's a fantastic comic inversion, sort of blackly comic inversion of what normally happens. So I wanted it that... You know, in the printed cadenza in the score, that comes out of nowhere a little bit to me. And I wanted it to just be set up a bit more in the violin part, as though you can hear somebody winding the spring of this little machine a little bit too far and then it pops, [laughs] and that's the end of the piece.

[00:08:40] So I mean, it was incredible fun to just insert a little bit of my own music, as it were, into this great violin concerto by Ligeti. All the material, by the way, is by him. It says you must use material from the concerto, but it's my version of it. So that is really a joy for me.

BMcC [00:09:00] And having Augustin [Hadelich] play it, have you have you worked with Augustine before? And was this sort of, did he approach you about doing this cadenza originally?

TA [00:09:12] Well, I knew Augustin because he plays and has recorded my my Violin Concerto, an extraordinary recording, actually. And several violinist friends of mine, who I might have done the piece with, they all talk about Augustin and this recording in sort of hushed tones. There are some moments that they simply don't know how he did it. And standing next to him playing this Ligeti, it is rather like that. I sometimes almost forget to conduct. I'm just watching, I mean "How are you doing that?" I mean, it's extraordinary. And his mastery of the piece and the technique is just amazing. And I mean it was a very natural idea, you know, and he comes to play here, and I'm here, and I just thought, well, this is obviously something that ought to happen.

BMcC [00:10:01] Yeah. Yeah, it's a fantastic idea. So circling back to your original comment about sort of inviting dinner guests, now, after looking at Stravinsky, Ligeti, and your own music, Beethoven sort of feels like that guy that's going to show up and be a little bit of the odd man out. But there's a reason he's here. So tell me about Beethoven's Eighth on this particular concert.

TA [00:10:22] Oh, I mean, I think Beethoven's Eighth and the Ligeti Violin Concerto will get along just fine. But there's a very similar sense of humor there. And also, I mean, he's not as old as Ligeti, but it's his Eighth Symphony. It's not his First Symphony. We're nearly at the end, and yet he produces this thing which is pure playfulness and joy and kind of an impish sense of humor, a wicked sense of humor, and full of Ligeti-like sudden surprises, eruptions that happen. The slow movement is this, sort of, I think of it as the Napoleonic Wars, but staged with toy soldiers and like a child does the earthquake and they all fall over. And it's that kind of feeling. The whole thing feels like, you know, he's really saying, "I may be, you know, this man at this stage in my life. And, you know, all sorts of things are difficult." But he's still a child at heart. And I think that's very much in there. And the whole thing has this atmosphere. And I think the Ligeti is magnificently, deliberately childish as well, at moments. And it's part of it's an extraordinary character.

BMcC [00:11:35] Now that you mention it, I guess in a sort of sense, very roughly, they come at similar points in each composer's lives. They're sort of almost summing up, but also returning to some of the earliest moments of their composing lives.

TA [00:11:49] Yes, and there are things, these are people... Beethoven has already done such serious things in his life. But yet, you know, the pranks in the last movement, still to this day, you know, are just so outrageous. And then in the Ligeti, you know, some things are very, very sort of dark. But then you have this great ocarina chorus or whatever, the end with this one, with the whistle, which it's really like a kind of cartoonish writing. And I think they're very close actually.

BMcC [00:12:21] That makes a lot of sense. That's terrific. Thank you very much, Thomas Adès, for your time today. I appreciate it.

TA [00:12:25] My pleasure, Brian.

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Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.