At the Barbican this evening, Thomas Adès‘ latest orchestral work, Polaris, was given its UK première by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert. It’s fortunate indeed that Adès has left behind the ludicrously lavish plaudits that were rained down on him in a ceaseless golden shower throughout the mid- to late-1990s. For a time, Adès could seemingly do no wrong, irrespective of what some might describe as a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. However, both then and since i’ve almost invariably found myself impressed by the endeavour even if the achievement isn’t quite so convincing (i’m excluding Brahms; no-one should have composed that particular bit of doggerel). The recurring spanner in the works, it seems to me, is Adès’ penchant for playing intricate compositional games with himself; hardly problematic in itself, far from it, but one can’t help feeling the music often ends up being convoluted in an unhelpful way, obfuscating the clarity with which Adès clearly wants to communicate his ideas; put another way, his compositions often seem to be emotive or beautiful despite themselves.
Which brings us back to tonight, and to Polaris. Perhaps it’s just me, but from the opening minutes of the piece it all felt rather disconcerting; in a primarily American commission, Adès has, it seems, felt the need to draw on the kind of compositional mannerisms intimately associated with that country. From the overtly minimalistic material that both begins and permeates the work, to the quasi-tonal textural configurations that form a backdrop to much of the development, Polaris seems to project a ‘foreign’ tone of voice (both geographically and personally), not entirely at odds with Adès’ other work, but not necessarily in keeping with it either. For Adès, it’s the result of a combination of experimentation and liberation; in a 2010 interview with the San Francisco Classical Voice, he described the effect of being in America:
To a European arriving here, you get this immediate sense of freedom from certain habits of thinking, when making decisions writing music. You make the decisions with the perspective of a certain kind of personal freedom. In England, you can feel one’s various tutors looking over your shoulder all the time. In L.A. that closeness of older models is no longer in the way, and you can perhaps see a further horizon than you could in England.
The trouble is, in the context of Polaris it doesn’t prove terribly convincing at all, actually coming across as a rather bland and arbitrary bit of stylistic borrowing—far less original or striking than in the ‘Ecstasio’ of Asyla—combined with a rather unseemly attempt to please its original US audience. That probably makes it sound more egregious than it is, but there’s a distinct sense throughout Polaris of a composer going through the motions in a compositional space that’s neither challenging nor particularly engaging, and not even terribly authentic. To compound things, in the aforementioned interview, Adès goes on thus:
I get more and more interested in clarity while I’m here. I find I think more clearly here. So if you compare the music I wrote in 1993 to what I’ve written since I’ve been here, there was much more blurring, in a way — frantically throwing things at the page to get to the piece. Out here, I try to build things more clearly.
i mentioned obfuscation before, and indeed clarity is unfortunately the one thing most obviously absent from this piece. Melody is clearly an important aspect of Polaris, yet the piece seems confused as to whether it’s that or texture that it most wants to project. Sometimes, the texture takes over completely, the orchestra forming a whole so homogeneous that the ear has absolutely nothing to grasp onto; even with Adès’ ever-keen orchestrational dexterity, the result is a surprisingly dull mush of sound, everything pushed into the middleground and seeming to tread water. Elsewhere, the sense of melody comes through stronger, but at no point does it become sufficiently interesting or even coherent to sustain itself. There are, i have to say, some really wonderful moments when the melody makes a deep impact on the entire orchestra—a couple of minutes in, taken up by the strings within a choppy accompaniment; and shortly after, embedded in an exciting interplay between trumpets, contraforte and metallic percussion—but they’re rare glimpses of focus in otherwise fogged material. Moments as captivating as those do make you want to forgive and forget the issues with clarity and stylistic integrity; that’s all too easy in a piece like Adès’ bejewelled folly These Premises Are Alarmed, but impossible in Polaris, the scope of which exacerbates its problems. Polaris makes a pleasant enough noise, and presumably that’s sufficient for some composers and audiences, but goodness knows Thomas Adès is capable of a very great deal more than that.