Thomas Adès

Proms 2013: the premières – how you voted

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Premières, Proms | Leave a comment

Now that a fortnight has passed since the deafening broohaha of the Last Night, it’s time to look at how you, esteemed readers, have voted in the 5:4 Proms polls. 545 votes were cast this year, & having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought.

Worst New Work

Nishat Khan/Pete Stacey – The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1)

The Proms première quality control took a real nosedive this year, & no-one can blame you for voting this hackrag as the worst of them. As i mentioned at the time, fingers need to pointed as much at Pete Stacey (who appears to have done most of the actual ‘hard’ work) as Nishat Khan, for creating one of the most ghastly examples of culturally confused, ingratiating sonic ghee you’ll ever have the misfortune to hear. Perhaps there’s a place in society for music that actually makes you feel more stupid while you listen to it (e.g.), but that place really shouldn’t be the Proms.

Runners Up

Diana Burrell – Blaze
Anna Clyne – Masquerade
Gerald Barry – No other people.

i know, right? So it seems when composers aren’t interested in either shocking or flattering us, they’ll opt simply to bore us with half-baked banalities. Not, it has to be said, terribly unpredictable in the case of a couple of these composers, but that doesn’t stop it becoming rather cuttingly irritating as the minutes slowly tick past. It would be pushing it to call Anna Clyne’s Last Night barnstormer “banal”, but it certainly lacked anything approximating originality, so it’s hardly surprising you voted so strongly against it.

Best New Work

Colin Matthews – Turning Point

86% of you gave a positive response to Colin Matthews’ new work, & even though it wasn’t my favourite of the premières, i can see where you’re coming from. Surprise & no little relief accompanied my experience of listening to the piece, particularly due to its refreshing (if rare) determination to avoid Faberian blandaties. “There’s a kind of majesty to it” i opined at the time, & that view hasn’t changed; the kind of dramatic rug-pulling Matthews comes up with, coupled with his nicely effective problem-cum-solution structure, go a long way to making this his most imaginative new work in a long time.

Runners Up

Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto
Helmut Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied
Thomas Adès – Totentanz

No arguments here; i enjoyed all three of these works immensely, & they each seem to yield more & more on further listenings. It’s shameful that it took until Helmut Lachenmann’s 78th year before he was featured at the Proms (& 33 years since the Tanzsuite was first heard), but perhaps one should just celebrate the happening rather than picking fights about the wait. i still can’t quite get my head around what Rzewski’s up to in his Concerto; time will tell. As for Totentanz, maybe some of the backroom sneering that’s been a perennial accompaniment to Adès’ career might shut up for a bit in the face of what is a breathtaking addition to the repertoire. i don’t trot out words like ‘masterpiece’ very often, but i cleave firmly to my initial view of the piece, it really does seem to have that written all over it.

As to my own peeves & faves, the ‘new’ works by Philip Glass & David Matthews left me, literally, shouting at the speakers. i’ve wasted enough words on those twin monstrosities, so no need for anything more here, except to say i’m bewildered at the amount of support Glass’ music continues to ‘enjoy'; a little over half the votes for that piece were positive. Go figure. Turning to the triumphs, in addition to the Adès & Lachenmann scores, another favourite of my own this year was a piece that seems to have been skirted over by most of you who voted: Edward Cowie’s Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef. Perhaps that was due to a lack of listeners—the title, implying it can be filed under ‘eco-message’ possibly doesn’t help—but if so, that’s a shame, as Cowie’s music manages to get his point across purely through a sense of celebration & wonderment, & his sonic language is disarmingly but invitingly complex. If you haven’t checked it out yet, be sure to do so, as it’s a rather rarefied delight.

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Proms 2013: Thomas Adès – Totentanz (World Première)

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Premières, Proms | 7 Comments

Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas AdèsTotentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano & baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden & even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate & enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, & it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn & Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Arcadiana

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Lent Series | 3 Comments

Being Ash Wednesday, today marks the start of Lent; last year i spent the season exploring a variety of choral & vocal works, but this year i’m going to focus attention on the string quartet. To begin, one of my favourite contemporary quartets, Thomas AdèsArcadiana, composed in 1994 for the Endellion Quartet, who gave the first performance in November. My first encounter with the work was the following summer, when the Endellions brought it to the Cheltenham Music Festival; it made a very deep impression on me then, & it still does today.

Adès conceived the piece as a series of short evocations, each of the seven movements being “an image associated with ideas of the idyll, vanishing, vanished or imaginary”. As such, fantasy & allusion are richly present throughout, Adès deliberately intimating at various composers while refraining from obvious quotation. The opening movement, ‘Venezia notturno’ (all of the odd movements reference aquatic subjects), is the least assertive of them all, undulating arpeggios & a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, & just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—& it’s gone, washed away in the momentarily aggressive coda. ‘Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon’ is a title directly drawn from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, & Papageno’s bells seem to be the source here, with the Queen of the Night putting in an appearance right at the end. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ switches to a Schubert lied as inspiration, the downward pattern of the well-known piano part becoming a preoccupation of the entire quartet, first as onomatopoeic pizzicato drips, eventually as a more passionate cascade; it’s the first time in Arcadiana that the quartet becomes really substantial. Read more

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Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Lent Series | Leave a comment

In many of the hymns & carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables & shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.

The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary & Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—& she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Polaris (UK Première)

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Premières | Leave a comment

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 & 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, & 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 & 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 & personally), not entirely at odds with Adès’ other work, but not necessarily in keeping with it either. Read more

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