Thomas Adès

Royal Opera House, London: Thomas Adès – The Exterminating Angel (UK Première)

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Among the plethora of quasi-quotations that litter (and that is the right word) Thomas Adès‘ operatic ‘take’ on Luis Buñuel’s cinematic masterwork El ángel exterminador, there was one quotation missing that, had it appeared at the very start, would have made at least the first two acts make total sense: the Looney Tunes opening titles. Surprisingly – and, actually, it was a very pleasant surprise – The Exterminating Angel bears a much closer similarity to Powder Her Face than The Tempest; in terms of compositional technique, his new opera is clearly an extension of The Tempest, but its overall tone and attitude is very much more that of his debut opera. Yet the key word here is ‘similarity’: Powder Her Face was sarcastic but subtle and sophisticated, the bite of its wit matched by an undeniable aesthetic elegance and dazzling compositional ingenuity. Those are not words that suit The Exterminating Angel. From the outset, Adès seems to feel his characters are inhabiting a cartoon, the music often literally following their movements, replete with orchestral crashes to coincide with the character of Raúl being slapped about the face(!). The quotations Adès draws on – familiar fare: waltzes, Spanish outbursts, faux-Romantic piano variations, etc. – don’t so much flesh this out as act like musical Post-It notes to make quick and dirty allusive connections in lieu of something more considered and musically argued.

When not behaving like this, the music regularly took on a curious habit of treading water. It’s interesting to note Adès’ words in his conversation with Christian Arseni (originally published to coincide with the Salzburg première performances, and reproduced on this occasion): “When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C…”. Adès seems to have meant that very literally, producing great tracts of material that one can only meaningfully describe as ‘underscore’. Sometimes this material undergoes the chord progression processes that now typify his work, and in Act 1 in particular they were so aurally transparent that following their movement provided some interest, but elsewhere the music at times exhibited such neutrality that the singers felt entirely disconnected from it, as though skimming above the accompaniment’s surface. Read more

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Mix Tape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mix tape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mix tape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Spring 2017

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There are lots of exciting events coming up in the next few months, approaching new music from a plethora of different angles.

Next month the Royal Opera House will be giving the first UK performances of Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Buñuel’s splendidly off-kilter movie. Premièred last summer in Salzburg, it’ll be receiving half a dozen performances at Covent Garden from late April to Early May. With a libretto by Tom Cairns, featuring the likes of (among many others) Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice, Sophie Bevan, John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, and directed by the composer, it should prove quite a spectacle. Well over a decade after witnessing the first performance of Adès’ last opera, The Tempest, i’m still somewhat in two minds about it, so it’ll be fascinating to see where he’s coming from in this new operatic work.

The Another Timbre label is taking over Café Oto for three days at the start of May, with a series of concerts to tie-in with their new five-disc set of music by Canadian Composers (a review of these is coming soon). Works by Linda Catlin Smith, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Marc Sabat, Martin Arnold and Chiyoko Szlavnics will all be featured in these concerts, plus a couple of pieces by fellow Canadian Cassandra Miller and not-remotely-Canadian Jürg Frey. Tickets are £8 a pop or £21 for the lot.

Looking ahead to July, the details of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival have been announced this week. The festival’s engagement with contemporary music – which, let’s remember, was its original purpose – has become highly tenuous in recent years, but there’s one or two concerts to look forward to. At the safer end of the spectrum, Estonia’s E STuudio Chamber Choir will be showing there’s more to their country than just Arvo Pärt, also featuring music by Estonians Cyrillus Kreek and Veljo Tormis. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time with Estonian music during the last year, this is going to be good (though, fair warning, you’ll also need to contend with some Whitacre). Pianist William Howard is performing a recital titled ‘Love Songs’, including works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Piers Hellawell, Howard Skempton, Joby Talbot, Judith Weir and Michael Zev Gordon, a number of them receiving first performances. Joby Talbot’s music is also being performed by vocal ensemble Tenebrae, presenting his hour-long Path of Miracles. And towards the end of the festival, the Piatti Quartet will be presenting music by Joseph Phibbs and Mark-Anthony Turnage plus a new work from Darren Bloom. There are other assorted new works dotted elsewhere, and as ever there’s the annual Composer Academy for early-career composers, this year being mentored by Michael Zev Gordon.

And there are some extremely interesting events beyond these shores. Next month, Louth Contemporary Music Society is presenting the world première of James Dillon‘s latest piece, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments. A work for soprano and a small ensemble of five players, as the title implies Dillon has drawn on ancient texts attributed to Orpheus, alongside poetry from the father of the sonnet, Petrarch, Apollinaire and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The concert is being given by Crash Ensemble with soprano Peyee Chen, who will also be performing a rendition of the Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor (actually by Jennifer Walshe), of which Chen gave a fittingly weird and wonderful performance at last year’s Alba New Music festival. Taking place as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, on Ireland’s east coast, the concert is on Saturday 29 April in St Peter’s Church and tickets are a measly €10.

And in May there’ll be the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, which i’ll be experiencing for the first time. This year’s sextet of concerts is jam-packed with exciting propositions: i’m particularly looking forward to three premières: Brian Ferneyhough‘s Umbrations, The Tye Cycle by the Ardittis, Paul Hübner and the JACK Quartet performing Timothy McCormack‘s Your Body is a Volume and Clara Iannotta‘s piano and ensemble piece Paw-marks in wet cement. Above all, though, it’ll just be great to have the opportunity to encounter totally unexpected music from composers whose work is entirely unknown to me. That’s definitely not something we get sufficient opportunities to do in Britain.

Apropos: i’ll be heading off to Tallinn again early next month for the Estonian Music Days. The festival’s engagement with new music is exceptionally diverse and forward-looking, very much more so than we usually encounter here in the UK. Among this year’s highlights: vocal group Vox Clamantis who (foreshadowing E STuudio Chamber Choir’s Cheltenham gig) will also be performing Pärt and Kreek, together with a new work from Galina Gregorieva; the first performance of Peeter Vähi‘s An April Night’s Dream for keyboards, percussion, phonogram and city sounds will be taking place in the late evening on the roof of the Estonian National Opera house(!); and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir will be giving a thoroughly eclectic concert of works by Jonathan HarveyLigeti and Sciarrino alongside premières from local composers Tatjana Kozlova-JohannesEvelin Seppar and Mirjam Tally. But i suspect the biggest highlight of all will be the event given by the country’s National Symphony Orchestra, in an all-Estonian programme featuring three world premières together with the Fourth Symphony by the great Lepo Sumera as well as Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s Cello Concerto. It’ll no doubt be absolutely exhausting, but wonderful. They really know how to do a music festival in Tallinn.

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Moments of Weightlessness, Music for Piano and Film

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Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. Read more

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Proms 2013: the premières – how you voted

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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, and having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought. Read more

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Proms 2013: Thomas Adès – Totentanz (World Première)

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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 and 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 and 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 and enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, and it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn and 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

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Being Ash Wednesday, today marks the start of Lent; last year i spent the season exploring a variety of choral and 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, and 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 and 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 and a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, and just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—and 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, and 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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