The Exponential Creativity of Adès and the BSO
Conversations with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Artistic Partner, Thomas Adès, highlight a collaboration that embodies the phrase “a sum greater than its parts.”
Known primarily as one of the most original and dynamic composers of our time, Thomas Adès’s artistic impulses and explorations have also found expression as a world-class pianist, an orchestral conductor of uncommon insight, and a curator who reveals unexpected connections in disparate music from across centuries.
As he celebrates his 50th birthday on March 1, all of those pursuits are evident in two recent recordings, one of which, the composer’s Piano Concerto and Totentanz, with the BSO, has been nominated for multiple Grammy Awards this year. The other, released more or less simultaneously in 2020, paints even more of that picture through Adès’s deep collaboration with pianist Kirill Gerstein.
As CRB’s producer of BSO broadcasts, I’ve interviewed Adès a number of times. Considered separately, each of these conversations brilliantly illuminates a specific program. Brought together, though, there’s an opportunity to see how the roles described above collectively spark what you might call “exponential creativity,” in which each component heightens and fuels the others in ways that would be impossible without each other. Along the way, there’s also the chance to hear, in his own voice, the warmth and generosity of this unique musician.
I met Thomas Adès in 2012, when he returned to Boston after dazzling Symphony Hall audiences the previous season with excerpts from his operatic setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This second engagement as a guest conductor with the BSO turned out to light an artistic flame that’s only grown over time. As part of that week's program, Gerstein was the pianist in Adès’s In Seven Days, rooted in the creation story of Genesis, as well as a concerto by Sergei Prokofiev.
Adès and Gerstein hadn’t worked together before. And at one point, Gerstein asked if he might “get in line” to commission a piece. Adès responded, to Gerstein’s surprise, by saying that he would like to write, in his words, “a proper piano concerto.” We’ll return to that story in a bit.
Sibelius said that in the Sixth Symphony, he was offering the public a clear cold glass of water in the age of cocktails. 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. - Thomas Adès
What, to me, was most important about the interview I did that week with Adès was his way of connecting the strands of thematic elements throughout the program. Two works by Jean Sibelius (Luonnotar, with soprano Dawn Upshaw, and the Symphony No. 6) surrounded In Seven Days and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. I had never heard someone detail so thoroughly, and with such affection, a collection of music like this, especially one in which that person’s own composition was a part. But we began at, well, the beginning. (Read the transcript.)
To add just a bit more perspective to this conversation, here is a part of In Seven Days, entitled “Stars - Sun - Moon,” from the 2020 release with Gerstein and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, conducted by the composer:
And by the way, the new work Thomas Adès references at the end of that interview, for Witold Lutosławski’s centenary, turned out to be Totentanz, which, in its 2016 BSO performance, is part of the same Deutsche Grammophon release of the Piano Concerto. Again, a part of the story we’ll return to later...
Adès returned to Boston a year later, in 2013. Once again, the program he assembled was shot through with connections, each of the pieces its own perspective on the concept of exploring, particularly at sea. His own Polaris was at the center, bracketed by the Orchestral Set No. 2 by Charles Ives and César Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Our conversation began with his comments about the music that opened the concert, Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. (Read the transcript.)
What I find fascinating about that interview, beyond Adès’s detailed yet clear description of the mechanics of his own music, is his perspective on the Franck Symphony and its relationship to the overall concept of the program. In blunt terms, I was skeptical. Yet the connection he drew was so vivid and organic that I was convinced, and it changed the way I heard the piece.
A few years later, in 2016, there was a brand new context for my next interview with Adès. Not only was he conducting the piece he referenced at the end of our first interview, Totentanz, he had been named the BSO’s Artistic Partner, a title unique in the orchestra’s history, as it’s meant to encompass Adès’s unique set of multiple artistic pursuits.
The whole point about Death is, he's no respecter of ambition or status at all. So he swats them like flies one after the other very quickly. It's really, 'Next.' He literally says to the Doctor, 'Next,' like you would in the waiting room of the surgery. - Thomas Adès
Along with Totentanz, the program included Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Sibelius’s Tapiola. And along with the buried connective programmatic threads I’d by now come to expect from him, Adès also talked about people - or, more specifically, characters - in a way I hadn’t experienced before. As an opera composer, this makes sense. Nevertheless, I found his descriptions of the characters in Totentanz, which is based on a medieval text and frieze depicting Death, dancing with a variety of humans, particularly striking.
It also dawned on me that part of what makes the creative chemistry Adès enjoys with the Boston Symphony so potent comes down to Sibelius. The BSO has a very special way with the Finnish composer’s works, rooted in its own history. And for Adès, as a composer, Sibelius is particularly inspirational and even instructive, as you’ll hear. (Read the transcript.)
As mentioned, Totentanz is part of the BSO’s Grammy-nominated release from last year. And as you heard from Adès, there's something of a "horror movie element to it," a quality that takes on an extra power, perhaps, during the current pandemic. From the recent release, recorded in the concerts that took place at the same time as this interview, and with mezzo-soprano Christiane Stotijn and baritone Mark Stone, this is "Death to the Parish Clerk":
It was also during this visit to Boston that Adès collaborated with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players as a pianist and curator, performing Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet in a concert that took place two days after he had performed the same composer’s Winterreise, with tenor Ian Bostridge, two pieces that embody as great a contrast in theme and mood by a single composer as one can imagine.
Adès’s vivid imagination in character development through music was evident once again as we talked about those works and other pieces on the program, including settings of Shakespeare texts attributed to Purcell (and arranged by Adès) and by Stravinsky, as well as Adès’s own “Court Studies from The Tempest.” (Read the transcript.)
I remember that interview vividly because it so clearly revealed Adès’s creativity at work. As he says, he was really only checking on his own craft when assembling the “Court Studies.” But the mechanics of the music - the voice leading, the rhythms, etc. - seem to have organically made the leap from dry rules to fully fleshed out characters that we can now imagine and even look for in The Tempest.
I also love the idea of a very young Adès staring up at the ceiling in his bedroom, entranced by the reflection of water, later recalling that vision as he plays Schubert's “Trout.”
It’s too reductive to say that Adès programs “thematically.” Themes run through programs, as already described. But a 2018 BSO program demonstrates the curatorial aspect of exponential creativity. A straight ahead “theme” would confine his choices, which, in this case, began with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and continued with György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (performed by Augustin Hadelich, with a cadenza by Adès), a suite from Adès’s own opera Powder Her Face, and Stravinsky’s Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss.
I had been skeptical about the role of Franck’s D minor Symphony in an earlier program. By this time, I had learned to temper skepticism and embrace puzzlement. No, these pieces didn’t present obvious connections (to me, anyway). But I knew they would to Adès, who began our conversation by describing more of his curatorial approach. (Read the transcript.)
A very memorable interview for me once again, especially in light of Powder Her Face, Adès’s so-called (slightly jokingly) Fountain of Youth. Another aspect of his creativity comes through in his description of the Concert Paraphrase on the opera. As much as Adès’s music is of our time, his knowledge of and - more importantly - affection for the work of earlier composers is explicit in his drawing a link to Franz Liszt.
That piece, by the way, is part of the 2020 release of piano works with Kirill Gerstein. Here is the final part of the Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face:
... he came to hear me play the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt in New York, and afterwards said, 'Ooh, this gives me all sorts of ideas what to occupy you with.' - Kirill Gerstein
In 2019, Adès’s role as Artistic Partner - already so enriching as a conductor, curator, pianist, and even teacher (at Tanglewood) - finally resulted in a major new work, one that joins a long, rich history of Boston Symphony commissions. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra turned out to be one of the major music stories of the year, coincidentally premiered in the same week as a piano concerto by another major composer, John Adams, which sparked a characteristically perceptive article by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross.
In the course of producing our BSO radio broadcast that week, I talked with Gerstein, the soloist for whom the piece was written, bringing that casual exchange that had taken place in 2012 on the stage of Symphony Hall full circle. And while I always welcome a chance to talk to any composer about his or her music, hearing about a new work from the performer is also enlightening, especially when it comes to the performer and composer in question.
I began our interview by asking Gerstein when he had gotten his first glance at the piece. (Read the transcript.)
And here is that final movement, the part Gerstein describes at the end of our interview:
The attention given to the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by The New Yorker was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, with coverage that began immediately in the Boston Globe and continued as the piece was performed several times by other orchestras in the subsequent year.
The release of the piece in a Deutsche Grammophon recording, alongside Totentanz, has not only brought it to a wider audience, it’s also been as well received as the initial performances. Tom Huizenga at NPR wrote that “It may be the most attractive concerto so far this century,” also pegging it as No. 6 in NPR’s 50 Best Albums of 2020. And now that release has been nominated for three Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Compendium, Best Contemporary Classical Composition, and Best Classical Instrumental Solo (the last two for the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra). The winners of the Grammy Awards will be announced on March 14.
At this writing, on Adès’s 50th birthday, it’s unclear when there will be a next chapter to these conversations, as the pandemic has put plans for live performance and international travel on hold for now. No matter what the future holds, though, Thomas Adès’s exponential creativity, as experienced through the BSO, has been an unprecedented opportunity for audiences in Boston and, through these two recent releases, beyond. And if there’s one thing we know about exponentials, it’s that they tend to keep growing. A future with more of Adès’s inspired music, and musical collaborations, is not too far away.
Special thanks to Bernadette Horgan and the Press Office of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for their help in arranging interviews with Thomas Adès and Kirill Gerstein.