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An Evening of Modern Piano Concertos, with Adès and Gerstein

Thomas Adès
Askonas Holt
Thomas Adès

Saturday, January 29, and Monday, February 7, 2021
8:00 PM

BSO Artistic Partner Thomas Adès conducts an evening of modern pieces, including Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and his own Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, both with soloist Kirill Gerstein.

Thomas Adès, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano

BERG Three Pieces for Orchestra
RAVEL Piano Concerto in D for the left hand
Thomas ADÈS Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
RAVEL La Valse

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear Thomas Adès describe the connections among the different works on this program, the continually fascinating performances of Kirill Gerstein, and a look ahead to his BSO program at Tanglewood in the audio player above.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Thomas Adès, who's back in Boston here for a really fascinating program. Thomas, thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Thomas Adès Pleasure.

Brian McCreath I always love to hear about how you assemble programs, and I have my own ideas about what might, sort of, bring this set of pieces together. But I want to hear from you how you started putting together this program. Did it start with your Piano Concerto as the sort of centerpiece and then building around that? Or was there another impetus or sort of spark of inspiration to bring these four pieces together in one program

Thomas Adès I'm trying to reconstruct this, but I would say, I think we knew we wanted to bring my Piano Concerto back to Boston, where it was born. And so this is the second time in the same place, you know, that's the first thing. And then the other pieces [were] in the air, and they kind of magnetized to it quite quickly, actually. And I saw, you know, Kirill [Gerstein] plays the Ravel Left Hand Concerto, and we've done the G Major Concerto together, but I've never done the Left Hand before, which is ... My concerto and the Ravel make a nice sort of two-for-the-price-of-one deal concerto, they're a good proportion, one in each half. And then there's the question of what to put on either side. And I think I feel like the Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra, this huge thing, relatively rarely done because it's such a big orchestra, and it's very demanding. But it's also a slightly tricky guest to invite to a party because it's so crazily behaved. And the shape of it, you know, you can't use it as an overture in a regular sized program. But then suddenly in this program, it just sort of fell into place right, just there before the Left Hand [Concerto]. And then there was only one possible way to end the program, which was La Valse. And I guess those two pieces, the Berg and La Valse, to my mind, they kind of eye each other across the same room. They're very, very, very different animals. But they're both in some ways, they have a lot in common.

Brian McCreath Well, and I love the way you put it, there's only one way this program could end, and that's with La Valse. And that gets at the quality that each of these pieces has. Certainly Berg and Ravel La Valse, maybe Left Hand. I'll let you decide whether your Piano Concerto fits this. But this idea of something getting pushed to its absolute limits and then beyond and almost completely coming apart at the seams.

Thomas Adès Yeah, I think that's about right. [laughs] Now the program exists, it really, I feel it's a very good program. It's got a good shape, and I hope we can do it again. But you know, but it does, I think that is exactly what they have in common, yes, I mean, the question of, yeah, you've put it very well, something that's civilized to start with. But then there's a kind of point where it starts to get feral [laughs].

Brian McCreath Feral, yeah, yeah. And I just kind of, you know, I guess what I wonder is, you know, you see connections, I'm sure, in the inner workings of the music itself. But also, maybe this is kind of how a lot of people are feeling these days anyway.

Thomas Adès Yeah, I guess any time where, you know, seriously, when the world, society, which we all thought was going to go on forever in a certain way, suddenly there's an enormous change which is out of anyone's control. And you realize that it's not going to go on forever the same way; it's going to change and we will have to adapt or not. [laughs] But that's very much what the Berg and the Ravel are about. I mean, any Austrian in the 1920s, '30s, their world had come to an end, you know, it really had. And what a world it was. It was a very stable, apparently, and magnificent civilization. And boom, it's all gone, you know, almost overnight. So you can hear that in the in the music of the Berg. It's so fragmented. But this it's clinging on to kind of, in some ways, familiar objects, but they no longer mean what they used to. And the Ravel, obviously, he does it in a very different way. I mean, you hear it, but it's the same idea. And it's even about the same place, Vienna.

Brian McCreath Yeah, well, now, so it's been a few years since your Piano Concerto was premiered here. It's I don't know in relation to any of your other pieces how successful it's been, but it's been wildly successful, I think, the recording, the number of performances you've been able to do with Kirill around the world, I guess. And at this point now, three years on from the premiere of that concerto, is there anything you can say that that concerto has taught you or that has led you to something else? Is there something from that experience in the life of this concerto that has sparked a direction for you or further thoughts?

Thomas Adès Yeah. I mean, the concerto was written just before the pandemic, and so it's tempting to say it's kind of 1913 in the sense of, just before everything went really weird. So it actually seems to be now a kind of a piece I don't have to worry about. Like it can kind of go off into its world quite happily, I feel, in the parental way. I can let it go, and it'll be fine. But that's partly, you know, we, in this program as well, you've got the traditions that you hear in the Ravel, for example, the tradition of the waltz, and the way he plays with [it], how far he can go before it starts to break down and turn into something else. And I think there's a little bit in common with my concerto there because it does have a very traditional shape. And, you know, three years on, I feel kind of, you know, it's a good idea to have these things there in a piece because it means it's built to last, I hope, you know, even for three years is good enough for me. [laughs]

Brian McCreath Yeah. And so, your collaboration with Kirill, you know, it's been going on now for years and years. Is there something that has come out of this concerto that has, that you feel like you're going to be working on with him? I mean, no reason to disclose any future plans, if not possible. But what has this concerto done with your collaboration with him?

Thomas Adès Right, well, yeah, the biggest thing in being able to do it again and again with Kirill is he never plays it exactly the same each time because he understands it so well, actually. That's the thing is that it is a living organism and it can morph under his hands. And he fantasizes and he plays with it, not only in the cadenzas, which keeps me on my toes, but also it makes me see immediately how, you know, what one could possibly do next, and, you know, something else for him because things will take a new form under his hands. And he's been playing, you know, we've been playing other things together, and he's been playing solo pieces of mine a lot. I've done a couple of new ones for him and there'll be more, I'm sure.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, fantastic. Well, it's something for us to look forward to, for sure.

Looking ahead to Tanglewood this summer, you'll be with us once again, which is really good news, in a number of capacities as usual. You're performing yourself in the Festival of Contemporary Music. But your program with the Boston Symphony, it begins with this recently composed piece a Shanty - Over the Sea. And you know, there was this moment in the pandemic when sea shanties were sort of like this big trend or something. I don't know if that had anything to do with it.

Thomas Adès I actually knew nothing about that. No, I still haven't investigated what that might mean. I find I've got enough on my plate without whatever that was on social media.

Brian McCreath Fair enough, fair enough.

Thomas Adès So I know, it was a coincidence, but it's funny those things. And maybe, I mean, it was also to do with that we couldn't travel at all, if one has to remember about 2020. That was almost the most startling thing, was how it felt to be, in a sense, particularly if you live on a fairly small island, as I do [laughs], I mean Britain, Great Britain, I'm not talking about Jersey or something. But it's like, it was a new feeling. And I go back to that eighteenth century sense that anything, once you set sail on the seas, it was, that's a big thing to do. I mean, it wasn't just a taxi to the airport and off we go. That was out. So, that feeling of, what is this? What is the sea, what is travel? And thinking of my friends in America, my friends in Australia, was I ever going to see them again? You know, like, I mean, one just didn't know whether we were going to have to get boats to Tasmania. So that may be what was behind writing a piece that's about setting sail and about those who are far away from us who we're thinking of and thinking we miss them. That was, I think that might have been something behind it. Yeah.

Brian McCreath Fantastic. And then you're also doing The Planets, by Holst, which, I just, you know, I mean, there's never a bad time to hear The Planets...

Thomas Adès Talk about space travel.

Brian McCreath [laughs] But yeah, what inspired you to include The Planets on your program at Tanglewood?

Thomas Adès I just, I love The Planets. As a child, it was one of the first pieces I fell in love with, and it's fabulous for children. And I'm using my... One of the first full scores I ever had, I tormented my parents to get me a full score of The Planets. What, I don't know how old I was, 10 or something like that. And it was, to me, a magical object, it's so fascinating, this wonderful, huge orchestra, these colors, the whole, and it sounds so wonderful. It's still, there's something very special about Holst. I think he's, like, sort of, one of those great visionaries of that time, like even an Ives or these kind of very crazy figures. There are several of them, but he's, I think of all those people, he is one of those people to me, but he's the most professional of them all. So you get all of the mysticism and all the wild and amazing, wild, out there, harmony. But it's such beautiful orchestration and everything works so, so well. And I just think it's wonderful.

Brian McCreath And I never really thought about it until you mentioned getting the score as a young person. But if you're wanting to conduct, the challenges come along in these rather short chapters, if you will. They're not long movements of a Beethoven symphony or something. You have these individual movements that each, maybe, have their own challenge for a conductor. So you have to change gears here and there.

Thomas Adès Well, that's true. They're very different characters. What they are are character study studies about, you put it together, you actually get a wonderful, rounded, three dimensional picture of a human being and all our moods and all our experiences. And then that fabulous ending, which is almost, you know, inhuman. It's so cold and wonderful, and it's a delicious ending. I'll be using that score.

Brian McCreath Oh, you'll be using that score you got as a 10 year old?

Thomas Adès Oh, absolutely. "Property of," it says, with my address under the solar system, you know, that kind of thing. [laughs]

Brian McCreath That's great. We'll get a little picture of that and make sure that gets out there. Well, one last question. Your title here at the BSO, Artistic Partner, this has been something now for about six years, something like that.

Thomas Adès It's, yeah, partly because of the pandemic, but other reasons, which, I think it was only meant to be two, maybe, at the beginning. And we all just, thankfully, we all just felt, can we just hold onto this a bit longer? That wasn't just me. [laughs]

Brian McCreath And we're grateful on the audience, sure. But, you know, you do very deep work with a lot of orchestras, and I just wonder if there's something, is there any way to characterize what it is in Boston that you can look forward to, that's unique compared to your other places? Not in a judgmental way, but just what is it about the Boston Symphony that makes your collaboration so vibrant and so energetic?

Thomas Adès It's so hard to put these things into words. I mean, the answer is it's many, many things. But they all add up to that we can play and kind of learn together at the same time, without anyone saying, why this, why that. We discuss, we can talk, they're very open. And they can do anything. Anything. So, you know, coming back, particularly after the last few years of, you know, irregularity and everything, it really, not that I've ever owned a beautiful car, but it really feels like finding, "Oh, I have this amazing thing which responds to every little touch." I can do all these things. I thought, well, I could try it out and be a bit tricky. Nothing is too much trouble.

Brian McCreath Yeah, wonderful.

Thomas Adès It feels very, very natural.

Brian McCreath Well, and here you are doing, I mean, we think of La Valse as being one of those pieces this orchestra sort of owns as much as any other orchestra might. And so there you are, and just watching you rehearse, it just looked like you were having a ball.

Thomas Adès I am having a ball. It's a piece that, if I dare say, that this really is in my sort of bone marrow, this piece. But I've actually never conducted it before.

Brian McCreath This is the first time for you to do La Valse?

Thomas Adès It's just one of those weird things, that this is the first time I've really got, actually, this is the... And thank goodness I'm doing here, because with a piece that an orchestra, as you say, owns, you know, what can feel a little bit daunting for a conductor is, like, they're just going to play in the way [they want]. That is very much not the case here. What you're given is, every possibility is there and immediately acted on, and just so, so, so quick. And so I could not be happier. I've been completely spoiled. [laughs]

Brian McCreath That's amazing. And so both the Left Hand and La Valse, this is your first time to do both.

Thomas Adès Yes, that's right.

Brian McCreath Gutsy. I love it. That's fantastic. Wow. Yeah, and so there's that collaboration, that you have that security with each other to just wander in and do something for the very first time.

Thomas Adès And the Berg. [laughs]

Brian McCreath This is the first time for the Berg?

Thomas Adès Yeah. No, but I mean, you know, again, they're pieces that I know so well from the inside, but it's just never come up and there we are so...

Brian McCreath Wonderful. Wow. I feel like we're especially lucky this week, then. That's fantastic. Thomas Adès, thanks so much for being here again, and thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Thomas Adès My pleasure, Brian, yes.