The New York Philharmonic turned over the subscription series of March 12-14 to British composer-conductor-pianist Thomas Ades, who led the programs and presented the first U.S. performances of his new work, Totentanz for Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone & Orchestra. For many New Yorkers, the programs presented a double discovery – an excellent and energetic conductor and an imaginative and talented composer. Some of us already knew him from another role, having heard him collaborate with Matthias Goerne in an excellent song recital at Carnegie Hall a while back. (I am one of that luck band.)
I’ve been a fan of Ades’s music since his first recordings washed up on our shores, and greatly enjoyed the New York City Opera production of his outrageous opera, Powder Her Face, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during City Opera’s wandering years. But this was my first opportunity to experience him conducting his own work, and it was very rewarding.
To start with the conducting, however, Ades appears slightly awkward at times on the podium, signaling that this is not his main occupation, but he had the NY Philharmonic playing brilliantly in Beethoven’s First Symphony and Berlioz’s dramatic overture, Les francs-juges. Indeed, I found myself thinking that Berlioz would have really appreciated the performance. In his autobiographical and critical writing, Berlioz repeatedly scorned conductors for excessive timidity in presenting his works. He abhorred sluggish tempi, restricted dynamic range, and caution in presenting the outsize sonic effects. Ades would have none of that. The bass drum thwacks were gut-wrenching, the brass insistent, the finale as noisy as Berlioz could ever have wanted, and it all suited the music, of course. The Beethoven was a tad more restrained, but still conveyed all the excitement of the brash young composer toying with the musical conventions of his day and even starting to stretch them in this earliest symphonic work. I would be eager to hear what Mr. Ades would do with the Eroica!!
As to his own work, it is a sort of cantata setting the words of an anonymous old German text that appeared under a 15th-century frieze in the Marienkirche in Lubeck. Luckily photographic reproductions of this ancient artwork survived the destruction of the church by bombing during World War II. The theme is well-worn: that death is democratic, it comes to all at every rank and station, from the Pope of Rome down to the lowliest in social rank and even the infant. The frieze depicted Death dancing and inviting various humans to join him. Ades divides the text between mezzo-soprano (Christianne Stotijn) and baritone (Mark Stone), with the former singing the parts of the depicted humans and the latter the verses for Death. From early in his career, Ades has been pegged as an enthusiastic eclectic who will assimilate all sorts of influences as he has established his own unique voice, which emphasizes a wide array of percussion sounds and virtuosic orchestration that brings to my mind the best of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
I noted at the Saturday night performance an unusually young audience, filled out with plenty of student groups. Perhaps there were lots of ticket returns from regular subscribers, as there are usually contingents of listeners who are “allergic” to contemporary music. They should have come, and those timid souls who left at intermission should have stayed, as they might well have been pleased by what was offered. One doesn’t necessarily leave an Ades composition humming tunes, but one can be haunted by the sounds he creates and the dramatic climaxes he reaches in his music, and this audience was much affected, as was this listener. I hope a recording of this piece will emerge, since it’s the kind of thing one would want to engage with in repeat hearings.