Metropolis: Thomas Adès, Life Story

Pablo Picasso, Musiciens aux masques, MoMA. Photo by Rolf Müller. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Picasso_three_musicians_moma_2006.jpg

Thomas Adès
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Life Story
Metropolis New Music Festival
11 April

All manner of contrabass woodwind came out for the first of Thomas Adès’ three Melbourne concerts. The comical, murky instruments ensured a night of dramatic vocal accompaniment and idiosyncratic instrumental writing. Almost entitled “Some of my Favourite Things,” the concert highlighted Adès’ lifelong interest in light-hearted and miniature forms.

To open the concert, Adès took the opportunity to conduct a piece he has admired since childhood, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, originally composed for Woody Herman’s band The Herd. Members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra provided a fine substitute-Herd from the racing, ephemeral time signatures of the opening movement, through the trudging, sorrowful second movement to finale’s pealing sunrise.

From the twentieth-century canon to a contemporary Australian work, Jeanette Little’s Acid Dream had its second charmed outing, this time under Adès’ baton. Inspired by the shifting realities of Philip K. Dick’s novels, the cinematic piece ranges eerie instrumental effects around the fundamental contrast of subterranean contrabassoon with seraphic celesta. The harp contributes a meandering flurry of notes in its highest register like a searching tentacle, over-blown flute notes punctuate the air and I don’t even know where the deflating balloon sound came from.

Two vocal works sung by soprano Hila Plitmann provided the audience with serves of nostalgia and humour. Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh is a retreat into the composer’s memories of childhood, with a series of vignettes from A. A. Milne’s famous children’s stories. Words turn to hums and disappear into clouds of instrumental colour, as though into a dream. At times the transformation is explicit, as when Plitmann sings “Climbing and climbing he climbed and climbed,” singing higher and (remarkably) higher herself, until she strikes a small triangle and the flute takes over the last, impossibly high note. Adès’ Life Story is not nearly so innocent, setting Tennessee Williams’ very different bed-time story of what happens after two people have been “to bed together for the first time, without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance.”

Nancarrow’s Studies no. 6 and 7, played masterfully by Adès and Zubin Kanga,  were accompanied by Tal Rosner’s and Sophie Clements’ geometric visuals. Nancarrow’s uncharacteristically dreamy Study no. 6 inspired bands of cathode-ray pastel colour that slowly revealed landscapes of hills and telegraph wires from a journey to Mexico, where Nancarrow lived in political exile (and then, after a time, just for fun) from the 1930s.

Study no. 6 by Nancarrow. Video by Sophie Clements and Tal Rosner. Music by Conlon Nancarrow, performed by Thomas Adès. www.sophieclements.com

Study no.7 was accompanied by a delightful design of lines, squares, triangles and circles inspired by Nancarrow’s piano rolls.

Study no. 7 by Nancarrow. Video by Sophie Clements and Tal Rosner. Music by Conlon Nancarrow, performed by player piano. www.sophieclements.com

Adès’ Concerto Conciso is, despite its name, a sort of concerto grosso contrasting a jazz band ripieno with a string quartet concertino. Adès played on this ensemble’s ability to shift between the sound worlds of jazz and late romantic symphonic writing, contrasting grooving percussion and instrumental declamation with icy string tremoli and glacial rising brass lines. The piece made me think of Picasso’s Musiciens aux masques, with Adès as the guitar-playing harlequin sandwiched between the singing monk and the clarinet-playing pierrot.

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