Thomas Adès – Polaris (UK Première)

by 5:4

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.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.

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Steven Loy

Interesting review. I just discovered this piece today (after being an infrequent admirer of Adès’s music for many years) and although I agree with your objective observations of the piece, I have totally opposite conclusions. Being an American who has lived in Europe for many years, I can sympathise with Adès’s difficult relationship with tradition and one’s predecessors, as well as with the sense of freedom (for lack of a better word; maybe “detachment” would be more appropriate) he felt (feels) living in the US. To chastise this creative exploration as an “unseemly attempt to please its original US audience” – even more, as “inauthentic” – seems to me a little unfair, to be honest. I do not believe Adès is cynical enough to feel like he must please anyone other than himself, and to question a work’s authenticity when one doesn’t know the composer personally is presumptuous at best. Indeed I think that most of what you consider shortcomings in the piece are actually advantages, although one might have to let go of their more rigorous intellectual preconceptions to appreciate them. It is an interesting quandary, though, don’t you think? One which most composers of our time grapple with daily – and it’s not just a question of taste. For audience members who don’t have a lot of experience with music written by living composers (excluding popular music genres), such a piece is “difficult”; for those who live and breathe this stuff daily and have a broader knowledge of what is being written these days (like you and I) it might be “bland” or “inauthentic”. The question of how to communicate effectively to both kinds of listeners is not so easily answered. (And it’s not just a matter of *appealing* to both groups, composers worth listening to generally don’t feel a need to appeal to anyone, in my experience, but to be true to themselves – whatever that means at any given time). In that context, I think Polaris is a thoughtful, compelling and sometimes simply beautiful solution for how to fill this gap. I don’t care for (or don’t get) the ending, though.

That said, thank you for taking the time to maintain this excellent blog. It is an invaluable resource for keeping up with new pieces being presented and I come back to it often. The access recordings is invaluable and very much appreciated. I look forward to future posts and wish you all the best.


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