BOSTON — The lack of an artistic director hasn’t kept the Boston Symphony Orchestra from staying in the forefront of contemporary composition. Two weeks ago the BSO treated audiences – at least it was a treat for those with adventurous ears – to the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Circle Map.”
And now Thomas Adès comes to town as both composer and conductor Nov. 15-17 before joining the BSO chamber players Nov. 18. He’ll be conducting Sibelius’s “Luonnotar” (with Dawn Upshaw) and Symphony No. 6 as well as Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and his own “In Seven Days” for piano and orchestra with Kirill Gerstein, who also plays Prokofiev.
Asked if Sibelius and Prokofiev influenced his own composing, he said “These are part of my DNA. I played the Prokofiev piano piece in high school. I love them so much that I know they’ve found their way into my bloodstream. I just noticed that the way Sibelius’s “Luonnotar” begins with the strings, almost white noise, it’s quite close to what I did in “In Seven Days, with the strings playing double tremolo. I wasn’t thinking about it when I composed it. I just noticed it yesterday.” He also noted that both “Luonotar” and “In Seven Days” deal with creation myths, though in many of his works you have a sense of sounds and textures crashing into each other, of a musical world being created out of nothingness. That’s a concept, though, he more or less scoffed at: “I’m not ashamed if someone says he’s descended from x, y and zed. It’s ridiculous to say that you come fully formed. It’s not possible. What I do think is there are these things we inherit and we transform them.”
Adès is that rare breed of contemporary composer – a favorite of audiences and critics alike, as witnessed by the reaction to “Asyla” at Symphony Hall 10 years ago under Christoph von Dohnanyi, one of the more thrilling BSO concerts I’ve been to this millennium. “In Seven Days” was written in 2008 for piano, orchestra and video, though there won’t be any video in Boston. “Some places it feels fitting,” he said. “I thought it would be better without here. We feel our way with it.” He noted that he played it in London with “a smaller ensemble who are used to things like you have to play in the dark. It’s a more cinematic experience.”
Here’s what it looked and sounded like in London:
Adès has also won accolades as a conductor, but he has no desire to go the route of Leonard Bernstein or Pierre Boulez, who both ended up putting conducting first. “It’s a seductive world, as long as you enjoy it. I think that the composer in me is pretty fierce about this. I wouldn’t get very far conducting on that kind of level. I wouldn’t get beyond a few months before feeling very unhappy. The last few months I’ve been conducting in New York and now this concert here. The moment we finish in Boston on Sunday I’m back to England where I’ll chain myself to a radiator and get on with my work,” he laughed.
Well, it should be fun to see him unchained with the BSO. Here’s what Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic had to say about the accessibility of his work, including “In Seven Days.”
Born in 1971, Adès escaped the ideological wars over tonality and atonality. “Thank goodness,” he laughed. “Personally I never understood that way of thinking. This note is good, that one is bad … Fortunately I can hear the tonal side of a very dissonant chord and the atonal side of a consonant chord.” He joked about how Mondrian specialized in vertical and horizontal lines “and another Dutch painter put a vertical line in and Mondrian never spoke to him again.”
Adès doesn’t draw any such lines in the sand, on the podium, or chained to that radiator.