The Boston Symphony Orchestra lacks a composer-in-residence. There are many local composers the orchestra might draw on were it to establish such a position, but few have the international reputation of someone like Thomas Adés.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Composer-conductor Thomas Adés has, in recent years, become one of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) most insightful and engaging guests. Like James Levine a decade ago, he presents consistently inventive programs that illuminate thematic threads across musical styles, often including scores of his own. His subscription concerts in Boston this weekend, easily the high point of the BSO’s young season, were no different. To close his orchestral residency on Saturday (he appeared with the BSO Chamber Players on Sunday, October 13th), Adés conducted a concert reminiscent of those found during Levine’s early seasons as BSO music director, beginning with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and closing with Cesar Franck’s D minor Symphony; in between came Charles Ives’s Orchestral Set no. 2 and Adés’s own Polaris, subtitled “Voyage for Orchestra.”
Indeed, the evening’s nautical theme was driven home from the downbeat of the Mendelssohn, with its heaving dynamics and motivic gestures portending, on Saturday, particularly nasty swells. Taking the piece at a slightly slower tempo than usual, Adés treated the Overture more like the symphonic poem that it is than as a mere concert opener, emphasizing the music’s shifting instrumental colors and inner voices. Thrillingly turbulent as its big moments were, the reading’s most memorable passage was perhaps its quietest: the clarinet solo that morphs into a duet over sustained strings before the hurly-burly coda was positively haunting in its otherworldly stillness.
Attention to detail and instrumental color were also hallmarks of Adés’s interpretation of the Ives. These concerts marked the first BSO performances of Ives’s near-hundred year old score, a set of three movements that roughly mirror, in form and tempo, the more familiar Three Places in New England. As with most Ives, hymn tunes and popular songs figure prominently: “Jesus Loves Me” and Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe” appear over rich, dissonant textures in the first movement; “Bringing in the Sheaves” and “Happy Day” turn up in the slyly humorous, ragtime-inflected second; and the hymn “In the Sweet By and By” forms the basis of the powerful finale, an instrumental portrait of grief inspired in part by the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania.
Taken as a whole, it’s a profoundly moving piece and it received a mesmerizing performance on Saturday. True, there were some issues with balance – the brass covered the strings at a couple points in the finale and the climax of the second movement was an amorphous (if spectacular) din – but there’s something quintessentially Ivesian about such problems, and they didn’t really detract from a performance that, otherwise, was so well-executed. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus intoned its short Te Deum with eerie mystery and the BSO navigated Ives’s densely layered rhythms with confidence and a striking measure of clarity. The big peroration of the finale was spine tingling, Ives packing into six minutes more content than many composers fit into forty.
For Adés’s to follow up such a piece with his own Polaris, then, took some amount of chutzpah. Written in 2010 for the New World Symphony in Miami, its title alludes to the North Star, the fixed point in navigation. And, in the course of the score’s thirteen-or-so minute duration, there’s certainly a sense of journey as well as return to familiar reference points. Generally, much of Adés’s writing in it is consonant – there’s a strongly pentatonic flavor to the opening section – and lyrical, especially for the brass, who, on Saturday, were scattered among the hall’s four corners. Only at the end does the orchestral voyage turn ominous and the ending is pleasingly ambiguous.
As such, it is an attractive but not unchallenging piece of new music. There were plenty of musical parallels with what came before it on the program, perhaps most notably the propensity for layering textures of differing rhythms and tempos Adés shares with Ives. Polaris also features an explosion of orchestral color: the list is short, indeed, of living composers with a more brilliant sense of writing for the ensemble.
Appropriately, Adés drew an assured performance from the BSO, which seemed to bask in the music’s luminous virtuosity. The only real drawback to Saturday’s performance was again an issue of balance: the antiphonal brass often simply covered the rest of the orchestra. This cost the music some sense of its depth and development, but didn’t prevent Polaris from making a strong impression. How many living composers can draw a standing ovation for a new piece at Symphony Hall, as well as hearty applause from the BSO? Again, the list is short.
After intermission, Adés led a brisk account of Franck’s Symphony. It’s a piece with its own strange sense of journey, both harmonic and motivic, and highly episodic. Saturday’s performance didn’t try to smooth over any of its idiosyncrasies: rather, it seemed to revel in them, with Adés pulling out all the orchestral stops at the big climaxes in the outer movements. Robert Sheena’s dulcet English horn was a highlight of the decidedly unsentimental second movement as well as the finale, which, like the first movement, also featured blazing brass and rich strings.
With the arrival of Andris Nelsons next season, the BSO has the opportunity to rethink and, perhaps, rechart its direction in relation to new music. Among other things, the orchestra lacks a composer-in-residence. While there are many local composers the orchestra might draw on were it to establish such a position, few have the international reputation of someone like Adés. He already has a good rapport with the orchestra and – to judge from the concerts I’ve seen him lead at Symphony Hall – has cast his spell in a special way over the BSO’s audiences. Of course, whether or not he’d be interested is another matter, and perhaps we should just be grateful to have him in town for a subscription series or two a year. Still, Andris and Adés – that would be quite the coup.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.