Beware the Artist: Thomas Adès conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 3 November 2016.
Partner with an artist and you might get trouble.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has done just that, affiliating with Thomas Adès for the next three seasons. He’s the BSO’s first-ever artistic partner, and because of his versatile talents the relationship will invigorate the orchestra on the podium, at the keyboard, and on the music stands as well.
Adès conducted Thursday evening, bringing to an end his first appearances in this partnership. The week of events also included his providing piano accompaniment to tenor Ian Bostridge’s hair-raising “Winterreise,” then conducting and performing with the chamber players as well.
Thursday’s program, of Adès’s devising, featured unusual pairings—that worked together splendidly—quite challenging works that probed emotions often left undisturbed. It included Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem,” Sibelius’s tone poem “Tapiola,” and Adès’s grim song-cycle “Totentanz,” with baritone Mark Stone and mezzo Christianne Stotijn.
You can see why Adès would pair the Britten and the Sibelius with his work: texture. All three build their moods untraditionally.
“Sinfonia da Requiem” (presumably implying “Symphony in the style of a Requiem”) ultimately does reach a place of repose. But not before a sweeping, punctuated first movement (“Lacrymosa”) and an accelerated “Dies Irae,” both with such different character they might easily fit in separate compositions.
Sibelius’s “Tapiola” (the forebodingly cold pine forest in his native Finland, and the equally foreboding spirit that it’s named for) follows a similar method—not relying on solos or even individual instrumental sounds, but in the true potential of an orchestra—the unified ensemble sound.
The principal gambit in “Tapiola”—one held note, that takes a pause, then sweeps upward—never leaves. It transforms, and comes back with repetitive vengeance. The mood is energetic, but dangerously alarming.
And “Totentanz”? Heartbreaking. A character study with Death (sung by Stone) as its central figure, “Totentanz” depicts, in jangled narrative form, confrontations by society’s most powerful and least (all sung with distinction by Stotijn) with their ultimate end. Inspired by a medieval frieze, a pope, a king, a clerk, a worker—all the way down to a child—make their final, hapless plea to the implacable reaper.
The disturbing text is further darkened by Adès’s challenging score. The exchanges between death and his victims begin lugubriously: the pope, the emperor, the cardinal, the king, all deliver their pleas discretely, with death responding in unchanging character. The music lives in chaos: textures full, percussion—a wild assortment with eight players—dominating the sound world.
The pace and clangor intimidate. Then the narrative begins to swirl, with death and subsequent victims overlapping their discourse, the music building to a frenzied sound, reaching crescendo in a raucous breakdown before the parish clerk’s encounter.
It’s a startling moment, a cadenza for orchestra. Adès did not even conduct, with the orchestra in a tutti exclamation point. From that point, the music becomes more lyrical, and even though the outcomes remain the same, the impact feels changed. A pathetic worker, a resigned peasant, a blithe maiden and finally, in the ultimate injustice, a newborn, come to death as well.
Adès conducts with deference to his musicians, but with ultimate deference to the score. His leadership, with tension at the top of his priorities, was everything an audience could ask. He made the music come alive.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but a captivating one. As with the conclusion of Bostridge’s “Winterreise” Friday evening, one wishes applause had never been invented. The intense mood was not one for celebration.
Thomas Adès conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra Friday afternoon and Saturday evening in a program that includes his “Totentanz” for mezzo (Christianne Stotijn), baritone (Mark Stone) and orchestra. 888-266-1200; bso.org