Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Our most interesting living composer takes on the world's greatest playwright.
To my mind, Thomas Adès is the most interesting composer alive, the young talent I'm most certain will find a place in the standard repertoire.  Yet perversely enough, we've heard little of him in Boston; instead, we've been listening to the latest from Carter and Birtwistle (two accomplished elder statesmen of modernism whom I don't find particularly compelling), or pretending that Schoenberg is still shocking. Yes, Opera Boston performed Powder Her Face a few years back, and I vaguely recall the BSO playing the great Asyla and the intriguing Living Toys sometime around the millennium.

But in the meantime, the "savior of British music" (as Adès was once known) has all but taken the rest of the world by storm - and found an American home not in Boston or New York, but L.A. (where he has enjoyed a special relationship with the L.A. Philharmonic for several years). Major operas and commissions have flowed from him, he's been showered with awards, all while building a distinguished recorded catalog as a pianist (he also conducts). It's wrong at this point to describe the 40-year-old composer as "the next big thing." He IS the big thing.

So his arrival on the podium of Symphony Hall last weekend was long overdue. Still, he played to plenty of empty seats. Remember what I said the other day about Boston still being a hick town? Well, that goes double for the BSO crowd.

But Adès himself didn't seem to mind - he seemed thrilled to have finally arrived in America’s greatest concert hall; and at any rate, he had bent his intellectual energy on a program that teased out deep cultural issues in a way that BSO programs rarely do these days. Part of the concert was devoted to his violin concerto Concentric Paths, a small wonder in its own right. But the majority of the program was focused on Shakespeare's The Tempest - in particular the musical response to the Bard's last masterpiece by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and, yes, Adès himself.

Now Shakespeare posits a strange conundrum for composers, I think. He has always attracted them - and yet have any of them, even the greatest, fully understood him, or been able to express what truly sets him apart from other dramatists? It's a puzzling, and troubling question (and one that, amusingly enough, classical music aficionados rarely seem to be aware exists; they naïvely imagine their art is the most profound one around). But even a masterpiece like Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (wonderful as it is) only conjures the atmosphere of Shakespeare's play, not the depth or contradictions of its text. The irony is that (as the Hub Review has long contended) part of what makes Shakespeare's dramatic thought so complex is that it's structured musically (my guess is that Monteverdi and the madrigal posited the model for Shakespeare's contrapuntal intellectual structures). And yet oddly enough, the classical musical tradition can't seem to match the achievement of the dramatist it probably inspired.

Verdi, for instance, can give us a chillingly grand Iago, but can't really convey the sense (as Shakespeare does) of the conceptual inexplicability of evil. Likewise Mendelssohn expertly conjures the rich fancy of Midsummer, but when it comes to its last-act parody of its own means - or even the opposed musings of the lunatic, the lover, and the poet - Mendelssohn is helpless. But then music is rarely good at deconstructing its own meaning (it's only good at deconstructing other music) - so how could a composer approach the probing self-critique that's central to plays like Hamlet and Henry V?

It was unsurprising, then, that the first two Shakespearean offerings of the evening were essentially variants on scene-painting (which Adès led competently, but not brilliantly). Tchaikovsky concentrated on a soaring love-theme, as if The Tempest were merely a later variant of Romeo and Juliet. Sibelius, meanwhile, was most inspired by the script’s eponymous sea-storm, and created a heaving, crashing soundscape of startling verisimilitude. This was better than the Tchaikovsky, but it was still essentially movie-music – more thematically intriguing was the surprising vigor and rusticity of Sibelius’s music for Ariel and the clowns.

But only Adès seemed to engage with the actual ideas of the play. The Tempest, of course, is not merely a highly rarefied fairy tale; it is a probing, and utterly sober, meditation on the “problem” of power and freedom – neither of which, in Shakespeare’s mind, is an unalloyed good. And you could feel this moral and emotional tension latent in much of the music from Adès’s celebrated 2004 opera (which has yet to play Boston, but which is now widely regarded as the greatest recent achievement in the form).

Indeed, there was a literal tension between high and low in the songs for Ariel, Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand that the composer had chosen to showcase, as well as a sense of mournful unresolvability, which captured much of the intellectual mood of late Shakespeare. I should mention that Adès did not work directly from Shakespeare’s text – he commissioned a libretto by Meredith Oakes, which simplifies the play, and emphasizes the roles of Ferdinand and Miranda. That may sound dismaying, but I was surprised to discover that Oakes had preserved Shakespeare’s underlying themes even in her own variations on his text – in her Tempest, Prospero confronts in his child’s romance yet another conundrum of power, love, and freedom.

Much has been made of the vocal writing for Ariel in the opera – almost all the sprite’s songs float up around high E – that’s at the very top of the “Queen of the Night” aria, for ready reference. It’s almost impossible for a soprano to actually vocalize consonants up there, so quite a bit of Ariel’s songs came off as a kind of abstracted sonar, which only Prospero could comprehend. But this, too – although it violates the sense of prettiness we expect of Ariel - is much in line with Shakespeare’s text, which stresses always that this spirit isn’t human, sounds like a kind of sweet buzzing to everyone but Prospero, and is always yearning to escape to the freedom of, in Oakes’s text, “higher spheres.” (You can’t get much higher than high E.)

And luckily the BSO had soprano Hila Plitmann on hand to superbly carry off these high-altitude acrobatics (she even did so with something like the sweet lightness we’d expect of Ariel). Meanwhile Christopher Maltman made a grounded, commanding Prospero, and Kate Royal a gorgeously thoughtful Miranda. I only had doubts about Toby Spence’s Ferdinand, who didn’t seem quite ardent enough to hold his own in this amazing company.

The other major work by in Adès on offer was his 2005 violin concerto Concentric Paths, a hypnotic piece in three movements which paralleled, appropriately enough, his writing for Ariel. Once again, a “vocal” violin line orbited at the top of the instrument’s range (essayed dazzlingly by Anthony Marwood, for whom the piece was written), while, in later movements, the rest of the orchestra sighed heavily below. What’s fascinating about Concentric Paths is the sense that its tonality is unstable in a curiously post-postmodern way, spiraling through key signatures yet seemingly drawn toward some sort of gravitational tonal center – what you might call a “strange attractor” if you were speaking in terms of chaos theory (which I think in a way Adès is). The audience appeared mystified by this eerily attractive gambit – despite the clean authority of the performance (the composer's conducting came alive for his own stuff).  They slowly warmed, however, to the vocal marvels of The Tempest (there were many singers in the audience, as the concert was a freebie for Tanglewood Festival Chorus members). Let’s hope that Boston only grows more and more familiar in future with this amazing talent.

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