Concert Review: Conductor Thomas Adès Takes The Boston Symphony Orchestra To Hell and Back

By Aaron Keebaugh

Conductor and composer Thomas Adès brought more of his intriguing music to Symphony Hall this weekend with two selections from his recent ballet, The Dante Project.

Thomas Adès conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his Inferno Suite. Photo: Robert Torres

Thomas Adès continues to mine musical riches whenever he fills the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium. As both composer and conductor, he has been regular guest in town ever since his artistic partnership with the BSO commenced in 2016. His Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, which premiered under his baton two seasons later, stands as the superb culmination of a fruitful musical relationship.

Adès brought more of his intriguing music to Symphony Hall this weekend with two selections from his recent ballet, The Dante Project. He completed the score for this spectacle during the pandemic — the composition is a mediation on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s Divine Comedy. And, perhaps fitting for our difficult era, the Inferno Suite and Paradiso received their Boston premiere last night. These works explore death, eternal damnation, and heavenly bliss in bold, Technicolor fashion.

Inferno offers a vivid journey through the nine circles of hell in terrifying splendor. Orchestral sections shout, growl, titter, and scatter, generating a kaleidoscope of sound. A veritable storm of brass sets the tension in “Abandon Hope” before the music settles into an uneasy calm in “The Selfish,” where solo oboe and English horn erupt in plaintive cries. “Pavan for the Souls in Limbo” courses in a supple, almost otherworldly dance. Undulating harmonies in “The Pope’s Adagio” smooth into a silvery sheen, while “The Hypocrites” showcase solo cello supplying some momentary pathos.

“The Thieves” romp like a steroid-enhanced union between Liszt and Sousa. Lines in the concluding portrait of Satan dive into deep dissonance freeze before upper strings conclude the suite in a sudden, hard-won solace.

Paradiso paints a complementary scene through slowly revolving shapes. Melodic fragments chatter relentlessly, with woodwinds and strings bringing gossamer delicacy to the opening. This music mesmerizes moment to moment. Yet Adès manages to build beyond contentment by including some satisfying momentum. A wordless female chorus generates a frenzy before the music fades in the closing bars.

Adès led each work with an eye to every sparkling detail, with brisk lunging gestures drawing power and vitality from the orchestra. The women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang their brief part in Paradiso with goose-pimply radiance.

Danielle de Niese narrates Stravinsky’s Persephone with tenor Edgaras Montvidas and conductor Thomas Adès. Photo: Robert Torres

The first half of the program was dedicated to Stravinsky’s Perséphone, a little-heard gem last performed by the BSO in 2003. Critics and scholars tend to downplay this hour-long melodrama — for speaker, tenor, chorus, and orchestra — seeing it as dramatically weak, perhaps due to the fraught working relationship between the composer and librettist André Gide.

But there’s much to like. Orchestra and singers engage in a leisurely lyrical conversation despite the syllabic text setting. And there’s plenty of humor as well.

Gide’s libretto simplifies the original Greek myth. Here, the happy goddess, upon smelling a magical flower, longs to help souls doomed to the underworld. Pluto eventually abducts her to serve as his queen. (Gide omits her rape from the original). Persephone soon grows depressed and longs to be rescued. But, partly through her own agency, she ends up returning home and is heralded as a savior. As one colleague put it, this version turns her into a Greek female version of Jesus.

Stravinsky relays the text’s metaphorical exploration of death and redemption with a stirring ebullience. Adès drew a nuanced reading, complete with momentary bursts of urgency in all the right places. Tenor Edgaras Montvidas sang with a bell-tone resonance that conveyed the convictions of both a priest and Pluto. As Perséphone, soprano Danielle de Niese delivered her recitation with sensitive assurance, her voice quivering affectingly when her character, trapped in the underworld, dreams of better days.

Prepared by James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang powerfully, a few flubbed entrances apart. The young boys of the St. Paul’s Choir School were an angelic vocal presence whose ethereal timbre encouraged key moments of this score to dance, mysteriously.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

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