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Music Mirrors Creation at Symphony Hall

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Nov 19, 2012 03:18 PM

I am beginning to regret not having discovered the music of Thomas Adès sooner. On Saturday evening at Symphony Hall in Boston, the thirty-one year-old British composer and conductor led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program that included his 2008 composition In Seven Days, for piano and orchestra (as well as, in the piece's original form, “moving image”). For those not familiar with his work, Mr. Adès has in the past decade become one of the most celebrated composers on the international art music scene. His 2004 opera The Tempest received its Metropolitan Opera première this past October.

In Seven Days, as its title suggests, is a musical treatment of the Genesis creation story. In the first movement, “Chaos-Dark-Light,” we are presented initially with an ordered chaos in the strings (or at least I think it was supposed to be ordered; there were just a few moments at which the violins sounded completely lost), moving into the darkness of the lower strings and muted brass, and we are finally and suddenly assaulted by a tremendous chord which can only represent the first blinding appearance of Light, and which leads directly into the second movement, “Separation of the waters into sea and sky.” In “Stars-Sun-Moon,” we hear a warm brass sound representing the sun, which is then pierced by the moon, as portrayed by a cold, bare sound from the woodwinds. The music dances just on the edge of consonant harmony, challenging and teasing the ear without offending.

Of the other movements, “Creatures of the sea and sky” and “Creatures of the land,” which together make up a fugue, deserve particular mention. The fugue begins with just the flute and piccolo, and is gradually joined by the rest of the orchestra as the Earth becomes more populated. I often find modern compositions that rely on quantity and confusion of sound both unpleasant and ineffective. In this case, however, I was truly awe-struck: I heard not a general cacophony, but myriad distinct sounds struggling to be heard above the din. Mr. Adès set out to represent every animal in creation in this powerful fugue; I think I heard most of them.

If his composition inspired awe, Mr. Adès's conducting caused me only frustration. He kept his strings for the most part within a very narrow dynamic range between mezzo-piano and forte. In Sibelius's enigmatic sixth symphony, the strings by themselves reached a true fortissimo perhaps three times, while pianissimi were nowhere to be found. Most of the evening's dynamic variation was provided by blaring brass and thundering percussion. There were also minor ensemble problems in all four pieces on the program.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw opened the program with a disappointing performance of Sibelius's Luonnotar. This tone poem is a setting of the creation myth from the Kalevala, a compilation of Finnish mythology. It is not often performed, in part because Finnish is not a standard language of the vocal repertoire. While I cannot speak to Ms. Upshaw's command of the Finnish tongue, her tone had little depth to it in many places and her intonation was highly suspect. Mr. Adès's matter-of-fact direction did not help.

The most electric performance of the evening belonged to pianist Kirill Gerstein. I had not heard him before and was impressed with the clarity he brought to the piano part of In Seven Days. His interpretation of Prokofiev's showy first piano concerto was excellent. He dug into the concerto's noble, heroic theme with supreme confidence. He tended to err on the side of forte, but when he wished to play softly he could, and it was haunting. Mr. Gerstein built to moments of thrilling intensity, then allowed the audience brief periods of respite to catch its collective breath. The orchestra was powerful and confident in the concerto's perilous close.

While it did not include any real audience favorites, the program brushed the dust off a few under-appreciated works, and introduced many—myself included—to an astounding new piece by Mr. Adès.

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