New concert music gets such scant attention nowadays that travellers on the Clapham Omnibus would struggle, I suspect, to name a living British composer. But if they got beyond Birtwistle, they’d probably make it to Thomas Adès, who has been the hot property of his generation since he was a student in the 1990s.
Two successful operas – Powder Her Face and The Tempest – have travelled the world. A third – The Exterminating Angel – opens at Covent Garden next month after an acclaimed premiere at Salzburg. And the Wigmore Hall has just hosted a whole Adès Day, in the course of which he talked (reluctantly), played the piano (in his own and other music), and accepted homage from disciples – who don’t see him so often now that he lives in Los Angeles.
America was perhaps a natural place to settle because his outlook has always been international, uncontainable by Englishness. His most impressive works – orchestral scores such as Asyla and Polaris that get played enough to count as modern classics – have generally been on a large scale with sweeping gestures that assault the ear as much as they seduce it. So exposure at the Wigmore, a chamber venue too small for orchestras, could never show the best of him.
But even on a smaller scale you can hear why he connects with audiences in a way so many of his contemporaries do not. Virtuosity is part of it: a brilliance that enlivens, say, the two-piano paraphrase of Powder Her Face that he played with Nicolas Hodges in the first of the day’s concerts (a redemptive rewrite of a piece that, in its staged form, is irredeemably cruel).
But more important is the strength of the ideas. He has a rich, dreamlike imagination. And although his dreams come with more muscular attack than most of us would welcome in our sleep, they also have a playful genius that is attractive.
Playfulness was central to the evening concert for this Adès Day, which programmed him alongside keyboard miniatures by the Hungarian György Kurtág (an enduring influence) and an explosive octet by an Irish ally with a comparable sense of humour, Gerald Barry. These were pieces where the play, however fanciful, is for high stakes. And you could say the same for Adès’s Concerto Conciso (an abrasive eight-minute piano concerto, performed here with members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group), as well as his softer-edged string quartet Arcadiana (played by the Calder Quartet).
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