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Adès and Gerstein Celebrate Ligeti's 100th Birthday

A collage of conductor Thomas Adès and pianist Kirill Gerstein. On the left, an action shot of Adès conducting. He has his arms raised with one hand holding a baton and the other reaching out, as if he's trying to carry the sound of the orchestra. He wears a black polo against a black background. On the right, Gerstein looks over his shoulder at the camera, smiling softly. He's wearing a white dress shirt that's unbuttoned at the top with a black blazer. He stands against a cream-colored  wall.
Adès: Askonas Holt; Gerstein: Marco Borggreve
Conductor Thomas Adès; pianist Kirill Gerstein

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Encore broadcast on Monday, November 27

Conductor Thomas Adès and pianist Kirill Gerstein celebrate the centennial of Hungarian composer György Ligeti with his kaleidoscopic Piano Concerto, and Adès leads the BSO in his own highly-acclaimed Tevot, Stravinsky’s elegant ballet score Orpheus, and Franz Liszt’s stormy symphonic poem Les Préludes.

Thomas Adès, conductor 
Kirill Gerstein, piano

Franz LISZT Les Préludes 
György LIGETI Piano Concerto
Igor STRAVINSKY Orpheus 
Thomas ADÈS Tevot

This concert is no longer available on demand.

In a preview of the concert, Thomas Adès describes the unique qualities of Ligeti's Piano Concerto, how some of the same artistic impulses exist within Liszt's Les Préludes and Ligeti's Piano Concerto, what connects his own work, Tevot, to them, and much more. To listen, use the player above and follow along with the transcript below.

Hear Thomas Adès chat with Arun Rath on GBH's All Things Considered about how Ligeti inspired him.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Thomas Adès, who is back in Boston with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the centenary of György Ligeti. Thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Thomas Adès My pleasure, Brian. Yes.

Brian McCreath So if we're celebrating the centenary of György Ligeti, you had a lot of choices for how that might happen on a BSO program. So tell me what it is about the Piano Concerto that he wrote that you feel is... What does it say about Ligeti to the audience? What do we experience of Ligeti from this particular piece?

Thomas Adès It's a very special piece. It's a turning point in his work, I think. I remember very clearly when it appeared. I mean, I was in my teens, I would say. But he had already a major reputation for having, in a sense, reinvented music at least once from a point when it was, in the fifties, when he invented these wonderful pieces using dense clusters of sound familiar from the Requiem and those pieces and very theatrical works, like Adventures.

But what happened with the Piano Concerto was completely new in a way. It's like he turned the, you know, kaleidoscope 90 degrees or whatever, and suddenly this new picture appeared. And I suppose at the time it felt like, suddenly, classicism came back in, even the fact of calling it a "piano concerto." And it had melodies and it had rhythm and it had harmonies and, but then, all of those things, in a way that one's never heard them before. And the work in it is so detailed and gem-like and complex, it just doesn't sound like anything else. But you also feel that it's got this real feeling of a classic immediately. So that's a piece that was always incredibly important, and it did turn out, thankfully, to herald this wonderful late style that had many masterpieces. And much of my favorite pieces of Ligeti come from that final period of his life.

Brian McCreath You made a decision to use single players for the string section, and I'm really fascinated by that. And I wonder what led you to that decision.

Thomas Adès Well, he gives you two choices. One is single players and one is a certain number of players. And I thought about it. I thought, in Symphony Hall, it acts as a powerful amplifier, this great acoustic. And I felt that it would be clearer with single players and there would be a certain level of... And I actually prefer the sound in the piece was single players. If I can hear the, you know, all the other departments are a single player, so why not the strings? So I thought that would be the right thing to do.

Brian McCreath It's a very different piece of music, but as I watched rehearsal, it reminded me of the difference between what you hear or see in Appalachian Spring, between a full orchestra and the 13-instrument version of that piece. There's something crystalline that happens to the sound.

Thomas Adès Yes, I agree. For me, that's appropriate to the piece, the way it is so many notes, but it's also very sparely written. There's not a single one too many. So I just thought it would be appropriate to have the leanness and the clarity of the single strings.

Brian McCreath You mentioned that you remember this piece when it was new and what an impact it had and this turn for Ligeti in his language and his approach to composition. What did it mean for you as a composer? What did Ligeti offer you as a composer in inspiration? Are there ways that you can point to that his music sort of infiltrated your own mind to lead to some ideas that you've had?

Thomas Adès Well, I'm sure it must have done. I mean, it's something with that amount of power. But I do remember at the time, in a landscape where there wasn't an awful lot of melody allowed, you know, suddenly things like perfect fifths. It opens with this beautiful, perfect fifth [interval]. But there's something he does to it that it's reinvented. But I mean, I was already aware of other modern music from the sixties or whatever, and this was very refreshing, a new color. Because I thought, you know, basically still a child, "Oh, well, you know, so we can have this as well now? Why not?" So I was very lucky, I feel, because that helped a lot when I was starting to write.

And I mean, he's such a huge figure that, in his own music, he acknowledges very much a link to Bartók, who was immediately preceding as a Hungarian composer. And he's very open about that, and there's no getting over it. Because both of them draw from folk music, and particularly Transylvanian folk music, which is where he's from and where the folk tradition is so important. So these melodies actually come from that tradition, and that goes back also to Liszt. And so I don't know, I think Ligeti is just there in the way that Stravinsky is there. I mean, you're going to find, with someone who's reinvented the sound so much, you cannot but have some influence, whether backwards or forwards or negative or positive. That's just going to be be there.

Brian McCreath Understood. Well, you mentioned Liszt, and that's how this program starts. So tell me about Les Préludes and why that was the piece that you wanted to begin with. I want to suspect that there's definitely a connection between two Hungarian composers, or Transylvanian, I suppose. But is there more about Les Préludes that you had in mind as you chose it to open the program?

Thomas Adès I have always loved this piece. Liszt as the other great inventor of music of his century, I think, in all departments, you know, in melody, harmony, rhythm, the nature of a work to write, this work with this extraordinarily weird philosophical background to it. And it really is like a hero's life, in a way. Like the Piano Sonata [in B minor]. It's like, this is, "I'm going to be a hero." It was the age where you had these extraordinary figures like Lord Byron. Or Liszt himself, really, was an extraordinary figure. And the music is about how extraordinary he was. And it just has this power and this physical impact. But you have to take it, as it were, as seriously as Liszt did. And it's the gestures. And this is why I think it's a little like Ligeti.

You get these great gestures of heroism from the whole orchestra, and if it works, it just has this tremendous drama and excitement to it. I mean, it's really I think about the point where, you know, music and real life meet. And I think Ligeti has that. It's why I think it's very Hungarian, actually. And Liszt is from the time when the Hungarian world and the German speaking world were very, very closely connected. So there's that strong link to Wagner as well, who had his own way of writing about real life by writing about anything that wasn't real life, like gods and myths. But it is supposed to be about the human drama, I think. And I think there's something of that that comes through into Ligeti. I feel like when you listen to the slow movement of the concerto, you know, this is someone who lived through the most awful events that have happened and with personal connection to those things, Ligeti, and so it has this real feeling of despair and drama to it. So there's something to do with the way it links to real life, I think.

Brian McCreath What you make me think of, though, is not just that the music itself contains these elements. I love the way you describe the commonality between Liszt and Ligeti, but also so much of it then depends on execution. It depends on how this is actually delivered from the stage.

Thomas Adès Right, that's very important. There's an amazing note in Liszt's words for Les Préludes to the conductor. And it's basically saying, "I want you to do more than just beat time. I want you to encourage the players to find the drama and the real meaning of the music and not just one, two, three, four." I think what he's saying is, "This is my life and this is real. Take it seriously."

Brian McCreath And then, in terms of execution, especially, the way the second half opens with Orpheus, this is a whole different kind of landscape, but also very dependent on execution from the players and from you. But tell me more about Orpheus and how your thinking led to that piece being included on this program. I don't know if it goes back to having done Perséphone last spring.

Thomas Adès It does connect to having done Perséphone. And this is one where there's a certain element of a refugee from the 2020 and 2021 period when all our plans were changed. And I think we were going to do Orpheus with my own Inferno. That was the immediate connection. But then I really couldn't pass by without doing this piece with the Boston Symphony. I just had to. And for example, the great first oboe, John [Ferrillo], had not played Orpheus, he told me. And I thought, well, it's one of the most beautiful oboe solos that Stravinsky wrote. And so there was that. We have to do it. But I think Liszt also was obsessed with the story of Orpheus and wrote a tone poem of that name. And my thinking about the piece is, I think, to Stravinsky, maybe, the way he writes it, it's about what music is.

So the Orpheus myth being, of course, he's lost Eurydice. She's died, she's gone to the underworld. And he goes back in to rescue her and plays music to the king of the gods in the underworld. And he [the king] says, okay, you could have her back, but just don't look back until you're out of Hades. And of course, what does he do? He looks back. Back she goes, [he] loses her forever. And then, unfortunately, he's killed by the Furies. And then there's this ghost and the music at the beginning with the harp, I think the idea is, this story is why we have music, what music is. It's as though there's a kind of lost other, you know, Eurydice, that we can only get back by making these beautiful sounds. It's very strange. I mean, because, well, why else would we have music? So, for me, that somehow links to that kind of join between music and life that you get very strongly in Ligeti and in the Liszt. I think this is the closest Stravinsky comes to it in some ways. It's very, very personal, this piece, somehow.

Brian McCreath That's fascinating. And if we look at what Liszt said about the Lamartine poem Les Préludes being prelude to... Life is a prelude to death almost, right? That's almost the nutshell, blunt way of putting it. But that's also kind of what happens with Orpheus, yeah?

Thomas Adès Right. It's a vision of the human striving and all the things we go through. And why do we do it? What is it for? What is it will mean? And to somehow put that into a piece of music, yes, it is very similar and it's a question that you know, a Liszt or a Stravinsky might certainly wrestle with, like, why am I doing this? The other thing is, of course, it's one of the high points of the neo-classical so-called style of Stravinsky. So it's a very finely etched picture of what happens in Orpheus. And there's no percussion, you know, just timpani. It's very classical in that sense. And so I think it's a nice foil to all that over-excitement on either side.

Brian McCreath I can imagine any number of reasons that you chose Tevot as the ending of this program. I'm not going to suggest any of them, though. I'll simply ask you, what was it behind Tevot that made it the right piece to sort of bring all of this program together?

Thomas Adès This is a piece where the title has a double meaning and again, there's a musical meaning and a nonmusical meaning, if you like. It's really a word that means "vessels." But in Biblical Hebrew, it's used for the ark, Noah's ark, that specific vessel. And in modern day Hebrew, it is used for "bar of music."

Brian McCreath A measure.

Thomas Adès Right. Exactly. A measure of music. So the piece is both those things. And I mean, it is a depiction of the flood in various ways. You hear, I think, at one point where the water's rising and it all starts to swirl and get a bit chaotic, and then you hear the anvils and it's the hammers that are building the ark. Bang, bang. And then off we go, they get in. And then at the end the clouds part and there's a vision of calm waters and a place of safety, the mount, whatever it is, and a happy ending. But at the same time, the way the music is built is the rhythmic structures which are like vessels that hold the music and they're quite rigid, but they move around and that's what gives it the way it moves. So I think that, to me, music that I write is a way of making something that's in chaos and swirling chaos that wants a structure of safety and a vehicle to kind of get you somewhere else. So that's how I would just describe this piece in particular.

It's also a very large orchestra, I must admit. And it's been a few years since I last did it, but it's very, very special to perform the piece with the Boston Symphony because it's the orchestra I know best, actually, in the world, and it feels very nice to do it here.

Brian McCreath If I might be so bold, I just also feel like when I listen to Tevot and I think about the other pieces on this program, there's some sonic connection, purely in sound, that draws the ear back to some of those other pieces in just fleeting ways, maybe. You mentioned the gesture of Liszt. The dramatic gesture exists in Tevot. The serenity of Orpheus definitely exists in Tevot. Right? So I just sort of hear these things. I don't know if that occurs to you.

Thomas Adès Well, that's very interesting. I suppose that there is also a link in terms of mythology or the timeless. There's something, I mean, I'm sure it'll offend someone to describe the Bible as mythology, but you know what I mean? Like, it's something that's, who knows, the flood, probably not mythology at all. But I'm talking about something that is very, very distant past. Maybe Orpheus isn't mythology. So there's a connection to legend, to the very early pre-history. And Liszt is both. Les Préludes is both somehow very modern, but it's also philosophical. And we already said that the Ligeti has this extraordinary quality of returning to something that is familiar and yet seeing it in a completely new way. So I hope this program will hang together! But I think it's quite good if you have a figure like Ligeti, so complex at the center of it to really open out the references around it. So you can hear how rich, like Stravinsky was a sort of focal point, like a prism through which so many different strands, colors passed.

Brian McCreath Well, your programs are always a highlight of Boston Symphony seasons. So Thomas Adès, it's great to have you back and thank you so much for your time and for your thoughts today. I appreciate it.

Thomas Adès Thank you very much, Brian. My pleasure. Yes.