Adès, Hadelich with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jan. 26, 2018, at Symphony Hall
The optimism that accompanies appearances in Symphony Hall of Thomas Adès—whether as conductor, composer or pianist, or any two, or all three—transforms his programs into a real event.
The orchestra has made multiple generation-changing decisions in the past few years: the appointment of music director Andris Nelsons, the subsequent inclusion of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as artist-in-residence. Both pay dividends, and Nelsons’s appointment, obviously, effects the BSO on more regular basis.
But Adès sets off a charge onstage, and an unapologetic challenge in the audience, which makes his involvement in Boston’s musical life seem momentous. His title, “Artistic Partner,” might seem a contrivance, but it certainly is apt.
Adès’s program this week—his own “Powder Her Face” suite, another suite from Stravinsky’s “The Fairy’s Kiss,” Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and, most memorably, the Ligeti Violin Concerto—provided opportunities for the orchestra to stretch out of its comfort zone. And for the audience to follow suit.
Only an artist with substantial confidence would align such works on a program. Nothing lightweight, following no traditional format—Beethoven’s Eighth as an opener?—and including the Ligeti concerto, which, all by itself, is enough to earn the label “challenging” for any program.
That confidence translates. It fills a room, it envelopes the orchestra, and it turns an afternoon of concert-going into a real experience. Not pleasant, uplifting, invigorating; but aggressively active, insightful.
Violinist Augustin Hadelich braved the Ligeti concerto, which hadn’t been heard on this stage in twenty years. Gorgeous conceived, unusual in its sound-world but full of integrity, the concerto—five movements, concluding with a cadenza composed by Adès himself—epitomized the afternoon.
Scordatura tunings in one violin and one viola, and the presence of multiple ocarina sections, map out a strange sonic geography. The demands on the soloist are unending.
The middle movement, which recalls Ligeti’s own Bagatelles for Winds, has a little bit of everything. Bracketed by soloist excursions, the ocarinas work their unusual sound magic, muted horns sound out accents, pizzicato comes across as otherworldly.
Adès’s cadenza serves as a coda: a brief percussion accent and then a short phrase follow, and we’re out the door. The cadenza drives the soloist into a frenzy—it’s long, it’s double stopped, it’s up in the highest registers phrase after phrase. And all the while lyrically compelling, and thoroughly complementary to Ligeti’s concerto structure.
The set of suites after intermission made for interesting comparison. Briefly, Adès’s own “Powder Her Face,” taken from his notorious and salacious opera, doesn’t work as well as extracts as the characterful original does. It opens fortuitously: a wobbly tango works its way through the orchestra, first as a kind of mockery, later as a more elegant melody. Each phrase that follows has strong programmatic notions, but after a few in sequence it becomes less a flâneur’s delight and more a boisterous parade. Here’s wagering a second hearing will improve this listener’s understanding; that has been true of all of Adès’s music so far.
Stravinsky’s suite to “The Fairy Kiss” ballet balances around a beautiful duet from harpist Jessica Zhou and cellist Sato Knudsen. Rich with ideas and devotion to Tchaikovsky, this isn’t angular, arrhythmic Stravinsky. This is the master of orchestration, extracting alluring colors, with ease, from the instruments.
This BSO program repeats Saturday evening in Symphony Hall. 888-266-1200; bso.org