It has taken me 13 years to finally connect with the sound world of Thomas Adès, with the moment of sonic truth happening last Thursday night at the second of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s most recent Meet the Music concerts (a repeat of the program from the night before). [Meet the Music is the SSO’s high school student oriented concert series]. I had hurriedly bought a ticket that afternoon after realising that Asyla was on the program (although on discovering Adès was both featured in the program and conducting his work himself it really wouldn’t have mattered which of his compositions were slated to be played); with only 24 seats left unsold I didn’t have much to choose from, but that suited me well, as new work is always fun to experience with an excellent view of the percussionists.
This was to be my first experience of Adès’ music in live performance, but I’d heard some excerpts from his opera The Tempest five days earlier on The Music Show, interspersed through an interview he’d done with Andrew Ford. And sometime last year I’d done a bit of a youtube hunt, and heard and seen some bits and pieces; a laptop is far from a optimum means of experiencing a composer’s oeuvre, as is an AM broadcast played on a car radio.
But this was not by any means my first face-to-face encounter with the music of Thomas Adès. Back maybe in 2003 or even 2002, I found a fascinating composition in the half-price bin of a print music shop: this was a work for piano by Adès, published by Faber Music, but most notable for the fact that the notation was in colour, or more precisely a range of colours. Different ideas were marked by different hues, and turning the pages of this composition was pretty much the most exciting in-store print music retail experiences a pianist could have with their eyes. But even at the half-price discount I decided not to buy it: it was a lean year (it must have been 2002, or maybe 2004). And I’ve never seen the work again, and the people at Faber Music don’t seem to recall its publication…. I fear that my experience was apocryphal even as I was glancing through the musical text.
In any case, the impression was clear that this young (some four years younger than me) composer was doing some interesting-in-a-good-way things.
Fast forward to April this year. I was on a flight from Perth to Sydney, having presented some P Plate Piano seminars at the WA Piano Pedagogy Conference (a brilliant event by the way) that day and the day before. My schedule was so tight in April that I’d had maybe 8 hours sleep in the previous 48 hours, and the adrenalin rush from presenting at the conference that morning (and the day before) was completely gone. I turned to the woman beside me and made small-talk where we both agreed we were exhausted and wouldn’t try to make conversation through the almost 5 hour flight.
So it was the end of the flight before she asked me what I did for a living. I tried do explain the specific kind of composing I mostly do these days, and in an off-hand manner said something along the lines of “no one knows the names of living composers these days”. At this she perked up, and said, “are there any composers maybe I should know the name of?” I had no idea where she might be going with this, and said so. “Well”, she replied, “I was in Los Angeles a few months ago and was a dinner party where I met the most fabulous composer – charismatic, witty, unbelievably intelligent – and I just wondered if you knew anything about his music?” I established that he was English and in his 30s, and so I took a wild guess and said, “Did you meet Thomas Adès?” “YES! That’s right! Have you ever heard his music?”
It turned out she hadn’t heard his music either, but she was a fan simply because of the impression he’d left during the course of this dinner sometime in the previous year or so. “Very sexy man” she had emphasised.
So, with all these encounters and reports it was well beyond high time to see the man and his music in person.
But first I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Stanhope’s latest work – Variations on a Theme by Vaughan Williams. This sounded more a collection of themes in the manner of an overture than it sounded like a collection of variations on a theme, this piece did show the kids what the orchestra could do. All the mid-20th century orchestral mod cons, paraded one by one (sometimes on top of each other), and then at about the two-thirds mark the piece went all Twin Peaks – walking bass and vibraphone but missing the dwarf – before suddenly channelling the 1812 overture (a surprising stylistic segue), and then concluding with a variation that sounded as if it were striving for Turngalîla-lite status. But it had the best ending ever, with heavy chains being dropped onto a bass drum. FABULOUS.
Next I had the opportunity to hear Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 being played by a Justin Beiber lookalike. Disconcerting. From the seats overlooking the percussion and trumpets it was next to impossible to tell if Maxwell Foster was playing any of the right notes (the piano was next to inaudible), but he looked as if he was doing a good job. I’m quite prepared to concede that my ennui listening to this work was exacerbated by the poor acoustic situation in which I found myself, but for the duration of the work I kept being surprised by Tchaikovsky’s failure to develop his ideas – the concerto is a hodgepodge of melodic moments and harmonic meanderings, sequences that go the full gamut of the circle of fifths (or near enough), and chordal resolutions that suggest Pyotr Ilyich improvised the whole thing while stoned. I felt a little bad at my bored response to the piece – the teenage boy sitting beside me was moving in time, almost dancing, along with the themes, clearly loving every moment and wishing it could go on forever.
Thankfully, it didn’t and finally it was over. The young man beside me burst into desperate applause. So did all the other young men in the audience. The young women were pretty keen, too (and way more dressed up than 15/16 year olds used to be at Meet the Music Concerts back in 1997 when I was bringing along my Year 10 music class from Hornsby Girls High School). Teenagers were leaping to their feet. It was a standing ovation. Maxwell was coaxed back onto the stage five times. The place was electric with exhilaration. That’s if you ignored the response of all of the rest of us over the age of about 21 (admittedly, a minority in this audience). We clapped politely, enjoying the crazy-enthusiasm of the students, me still convinced either Tchaikovsky had had far too much weed when he wrote that piece or Maxwell had hit some dud notes along the way.
At last, first up after intermission Asyla, and Thomas Adès taking the baton. It began, and was immediately interesting and exciting. Tonal, certainly tonal in terms of the second half of the twentieth century – perfect cadences even, from time to time. Early on a percussionist plays (drums) a bag of knives and forks – brilliant, simple effect; and one of the pianos is detuned some audible degree below the rest of the orchestra – again, a simple and effective strategy for creating a layered experience of the music, almost like a Brechtian distanciation technique. But these sonic effects were dwarfed by the fabulous visual of seeing the composer himself engage with the music-making beast that is an orchestra. And this is where those cheap seats really do give value for money: I could see every expression on the face of Thomas Adès as he guided the ensemble through the rough-and-tumble as well as the moments of serene extremity that make up Asyla.
And then we hit the one ‘named’ movement of the work: Ecstacio. Doof-doof music and the art of the late 20th century DJ have never had so fine an orchestral exposition as they receive in this movement. It was seriously exciting listening. I was unable (and unwilling) to hide a broad grin. The program notes made a point of letting the audience know that Thomas Adès has been to a nightclub (and even engaged in some dancing while he was there), so one can only assume that’s how he knows what he’s doing. I waited for the young man beside me to show some enthusiasm for this music that reflected the sonic realities of the world in which he was growing up, but he seemed to have used up all his dance moves in the Tchaikovsky.
If you haven’t heard this work there’s not much point me describing it further – go out and discover it for yourself. But what I particularly liked about it was the assured sense of architecture married with moments of fine detail and all wrapped up in a coherent sound-world crafted out of restrained (although numerically vast) orchestral possibilities. It was intelligent music about the world we live in today using a medium from the past, all without the weight of history for a moment distracting the trajectory of the musical message. What more could you ask for?
The piece even ended at exactly the right time (no twiddling your thumbs waiting for a self-indulgent composer to finally stop yabbering on), and I found myself repeating the wild applause the teenagers had demonstrated at the end of the Piano Concerto. The other over 30s (mostly over 50s, if truth be known) in my section were the same – we clapped loud and we clapped long. The enthusiastic youth to my right, by way of contrast, could not have expressed his disinterest more eloquently: a slow, vapid applause that one expects of those with chronic fatigue. I glanced around the concert hall and was horrified to see the same response from teenagers in every part of the audience; an aggressive tedium being radiated from row after row at the orchestra.
The orchestra didn’t seem to notice, thank goodness, too busy adjusting their instruments so they could applaud the conductor/composer with the same intensity and joyfulness that everyone of the age of consent and over was expressing. What a brilliant experience, you could almost hear them thinking.
We post-high-school audience members worked hard in our applause, and Thomas Adès graced the stage again and again to acknowledge our appreciation while the other 80% of the audience engaged in a Mexican wave of eye-rolling.
When Andrew Ford appeared to talk to the student-audience about the Nutcracker Suite (the next item on the program) I took the opportunity to escape. I’d heard what I’d come to hear, loved it, and it was time to make my exit before the teenager in the seat beside me started bopping to the dance of the sugar plum fairy.