Tag Archives: Thomas Adès

Metropolis: Thomas Adès, Shadows

Thomas Adès, image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Thomas Adès
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 April

Bringing jazz-inspired works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès together with the sensitivity and virtuosity of cellist Steven Isserlis, the final concert in the Metropolis New Music Festival celebrated contemporary compositional finesse.

Adès opened the concert conducting Niccolò Castiglioni’s Inverno In-ver. The wintry dance suite combines post-tonal transformations with the icy orchestral colours of celesta, woodwind, chimes and glockenspiel to create tableaux of racing snow and frosty stillness. Whereas some performers will complain that the results of some contemporary works do not warrant their difficulty, Castiglioni and Adès’ music may be compared in the dazzling surface-effects produced in their complexity.

A case in point being Adès’ jazz-era burlesques for orchestra from the opera Powder Her Face. Dripping with gritty sensuality, the excerpts harkened back not so much to the foxtrots and tangos of the 1930s, but to the sophisticated, self-aware, Weimar-era opera of Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill.

Mark-Anthony Turnage draws on later jazz styles in his tour de force for cello, Kai. Confronting the audience with a deafening wood-clap, Kai proceeds to seduce them with a homage to the romantic cello concerto. A muted trumpet introduces the piece’s theme like a distant bugle call announcing the arrival of the jazz-cavalry. Each time the refrain returns on cello it is more desperate. It is a struggle for the cello to be heard above the ensemble, leading the cellist ever closer to the bridge with an ever-heavier bow and a correspondingly hyper-emotional sound. Then the shredding begins. Isserlis covers the cello, hair and all, like a 1980s speed-metal guitar guru.

Isserlis channeled a different kind of virtuosity for four of György Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, repeating each descending mode or two-note phrase as though it were a completely new thought. At times scarcely audible, the meditative whisper of the cello was almost drowned out by the hall’s creaking light fixtures.

Cybec finalist Lachlan Skipworth conjures a “solar drama” (to use a phrase of the Australian Mallarmé scholar Gardner Davies) out of the orchestra in Afterglow. Like the dying rays of the sun, a fanfare on tuba announces shimmering string colours, which build and dissipate in a dense crescendo. The chaos leaves behind a more transparent texture with a lyrical oboe line. Harp and piano can faintly be heard moving across the orchestral surface. It is as though the tuba has dipped behind the horizon of the strings and risen again as a silver moon, lighting the path of two wanderers.

What the Shadows programme gained in stylistic dexterity it lost in innovation. It is remarkable that the most contemporary-sounding work on the programme was by Castiglioni, a dead composer. By contrast, the rest of the works (Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages excepted) presented reworkings of bygone styles for the orchestra and large ensembles. Many works in the smaller Metropolis concerts gave a stronger sense of being not just “current” but “contemporary.”

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.