Concert Review: Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Adés

With In Seven Days, Thomas Adés seems to have developed a musical language that’s complex yet not forbidding: there’s no sense that his music is weighed down by expectations of the past, even as he freely refers to archaic compositional forms.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Thomas Ades leads the BSO in his own IN SEVEN DAYS for piano and orchestra, featuring Krill Gerstein. Photo: Stu Rosner

It’s been nearly 20 years since the English composer Thomas Adés burst onto the scene as the next “big thing” in contemporary music. He certainly had some well-placed friends to help him out along the way (including his vital champion, Sir Simon Rattle), but, two decades on, he’s proven himself to be no flash-in-the-pan talent: his 2004 opera The Tempest is currently concluding a highly-regarded run at the Metropolitan Opera, and his performing career (as a pianist and conductor) seems to be keeping him as busy as his work composing.

This weekend, Boston audiences get to glimpse the many sides of Mr. Adés: on Sunday he performs a piano four-hands arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and last night he led the first of his three subscription concerts (through November 17) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), a program focusing on creation (musical and otherwise) and including his own In Seven Days, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1, and music by Sibelius. Kirill Gerstein appears as soloist in the first two works.

The centerpiece of the program’s first half was Mr. Adés’s 2008 score In Seven Days, a seven-movement work for piano and orchestra that takes the creation account from Genesis as its starting point. In Seven Days is a fascinating, often engrossing exploration of sprawling musical ideas that bubble to the surface, dart here and there, and then head off in unexpected directions. If it’s a piece that may not add up to the sum of its many parts (and I left Thursday’s concert feeling it might be), it certainly displays a freshness and inventiveness one doesn’t always encounter in the contemporary music orchestras tend to program, and that in itself was more than welcome.

With In Seven Days, Mr. Adés seems to have developed a musical language that’s complex yet not forbidding: there’s no sense that his music is weighed down by expectations of the past, even as he freely refers to archaic compositional forms (indeed, In Seven Days contains a fugue, among other things). Rather, he freely embraces gestures that are commonplace and unfamiliar, creating sparkling musical surfaces marked by layers of activity and vibrant colors.

In Mr. Gerstein and the BSO, he had musical partners fully equal to his virtuosic writing. Mr. Gerstein had ample opportunities to demonstrate his formidable technique, nowhere more so than in the score’s wild, fifth movement fugue. But Mr. Adés also wrote extended sections that are remarkably introspective, including the beautifully realized movement titled “Contemplation” that closes the piece.

The BSO has performed its share of challenging repertoire of the recent past already this season, and this focus paid dividends again on Thursday night. The brass glowered in their acerbic chorales, while the strings and winds navigated the rhythmic intricacies of their parts with energy and character, a few moments of unclarity notwithstanding. The orchestra’s extended percussion section reveled in their extended moments in the sun (particularly during the second movement).

Mr. Gerstein returned after intermission for something of a programmed encore: Prokofiev’s shamelessly showy (and not a little conceited) Piano Concerto no. 1. He played the daylights out of it, even as the orchestra seemed to be playing catch-up for most of the piece.

But it was the music of Sibelius that framed this program and served as its spiritual anchor. Dawn Upshaw, now approaching her 30th professional season, is an always-welcome guest at Symphony Hall. Her voice has mellowed a bit over the last decade, but, if anything, she’s more technically in command of her instrument now than ever before, as demonstrated by her performance of Sibelius’s 1913 tone poem Luonnotar. What other soprano has such pure tone, controls her vibrato so expressively, and can inhabit a role as convincingly as Ms. Upshaw? The list is short, indeed.

Dawn Upshaw performing Sibelius’s LUONNOTAR, for soprano and orchestra, with the BSO and conductor Thomas Ades. Photo: Stu Rosner

All these skills—plus her impeccable sense of intonation—were on display in this short score that recounts the creation story told in the Kalevala legend. Mr. Adés drew a performance from the BSO that was wonderfully balanced—the large orchestra never covered Ms. Upshaw—and sensitive to the music’s dramatic arc. The soft, clashing orchestral sonorities at work’s end capped off a haunting performance.

To close the evening, Mr. Adés and the BSO turned to Sibelius’s enigmatic Symphony no. 6. As in Luonnotar, Sibelius’s writing creates a strong sense of musical drama by being concise: this is a symphony that is poetic, to be sure, but it wastes no notes in the process of conveying its ideas. On Thursday, Sibelius’s compositional focus was matched by a straightforward reading that maintained a smoldering intensity throughout. If some conductors might find more drama in the outer movements, especially, Mr. Adés’s approach was perfectly satisfying: this is a piece he clearly believes in, and the BSO played it with conviction.

As a conductor, Mr. Adés possesses a technique that is more visceral than subtle (his stabbing gestures towards the horns in the last movement of the Prokofiev were among the evening’s more memorable), but his gestures are clear, the BSO seems to enjoy playing for him, and his programming (on this series and in his previous appearance with the BSO in 2011) reveals a creative, thoughtful musician at work. I might have been the only person in the building thinking this, but as I left, I couldn’t help wondering, Adés for music director?

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