By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — Thomas Adès, the much-lauded British composer-conductor-pianist and former wunderkind, has maintained a more or less regular connection with the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the last decade. He has led plenty of performances of his own works here during that that time span, while also showing a little-recognized flair for against-the-grain programming.
Back in 2006, he coupled music from his opera The Tempest with other musical Tempests, including a thrilling performance of Sibelius’s roiling Prelude to The Tempest (which the Phil had never played before). Another time, in 2010, he added Respighi’s Feste Romane — a piece that many critics (not this one!) love to hate — to a trio of his own pieces, and we didn’t find out until the following season that part of his then-in-progress Polaris had orchestral underbrush that seemed to have been inspired by the Respighi piece.
Adès was at it again at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Feb. 10, turning to a subject where most understandably fear to tread. He called this program “Dances of Death,” though not all of the pieces could be considered dances of death. The anchors of the program were two of his most recent works, the U.S. premiere of Lieux retrouvés and the West Coast premiere of Totentanz.
But first, a bit of Adès creative programming. He started with one of Sibelius’s shortest and least-known tone poems, The Bard, once favored by veteran British conductors Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Thomas Beecham and rarely revived since their time. With the plink of the harp, like the opening of a story, the piece begins, and soon achieves a rushing Sibelian climax. But seconds later, the story ends; the bard barely had time to clear his throat. The LA Phil had never played this one before either, and it was revelatory to be able to hear all of the subtle, dark orchestral details clearly in Disney Hall.
Next, Adès tried Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, a much more popular piece that is also a stranger in live performance (over decades of concerts, I can’t recall ever hearing it live — only on records). He got the strings to produce portamentos that bordered on parody and brought the final climax to a splendidly explosive head of steam. I suspect the real reason Adès programs showpieces like this, Feste Romane, the Tempest Prelude, and others is simply that he likes them and wants to hear what they sound like in a good hall.
Adès’ Lieux retrouvés — or “Rediscovered Places” — was originally a 2009 cello-piano duet for himself and cellist Steven Isserlis that he orchestrated in 2016 for Isserlis and a small ensemble. (You can hear the original cello-piano version here.) Only the last of its four movements, “Cancan macabre,” has anything to do with death; the others describe a gathering wave of water (“Les eaux”), climbing a mountain (“La montagne”), and observing a peaceful field (“Les champs”).
Adès used to be compared to the young Benjamin Britten, but “Les eaux,” with its growling, glittering orchestrated rush of water music, is the first time in my experience that his music has ever evoked a Britten “sound,” an impression that doesn’t come through in the cello-piano version. With Isserlis and the LA Phil players in tow, Adès then staggers drunkenly up the mountain, surveys the the peaceful field as he gradually pares the volume down to the quietest possible pianissimo, and knocks out a weirdly funny, whooping, urban death dance with twinkling details and cute surprises.
Finally came the signature piece of the night, his 35-minute Totentanz for baritone, soprano, and orchestra. While death, of course, is practically an integral feature of grand opera, few composers have had the nerve to address it directly as the subject for a work. One who did, Dmitri Shostakovich, created a pessimistic masterpiece with his Symphony No. 14.
Adès tried to do something similar, setting an uncompromisingly stark, anonymous text on death taken from a cloth frieze, circa 1463, in the Lübeck (Germany) Marienkirche that was destroyed in 1942 by Allied bombings. The texts accompanied paintings of characters ranging in descending order of “importance” from the Pope to a baby, each of whom had the character of Death dancing along beside them.
Like Shostakovich, Adès uses a low male voice and a shrill female voice, but whereas Shostakovich limited himself to 19 strings and 3 percussionists, Adès indulged in a huge, full orchestra with a massive percussion section that includes a Japanese taiko drum. Baritone Simon Keenlyside and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn — the former representing Death, the latter the various mortals — traded lines and occasionally sang together as projections of the texts and segments from the frieze appeared onscreen.
The score at first rumbled and rattled as the texts told us how futile it is to fight off the Inevitable Dance that we all must do. Piccolos shrieked, the percussion slapped, the strings occasionally made weeping sounds. The bass drum and timpani overloaded the texture with their whompings, but that was nothing compared to when the taiko got going at about the 14-minute mark. At one frenzied point, Adès simply laid his arms down and let the entire orchestra fulminate in a deafening free-form freak-out that lasted several seconds. There is a climactic string passage in the “Loreley” third movement of the Shostakovich Fourteenth that generates a similarly fearful frenzy, but Adès pumps it up a hundred fold.
It was getting to be too much, too close to the bone, too overbearingly crude, far more than the world-premiere performance at the 2013 BBC Proms — which can be seen here — let on. But two-thirds of the way through, the work descended into a valley of repose as the lower-caste characters were addressed by Death; obviously Adès feels more empathy for them. Led by the horns, a lyrical lullaby depicted the baby episode in plush Richard Strauss fashion, something that Adès pulled off quite well. And to close, Totentanz descended into a Mahlerian funeral march shrouded in the deepest, darkest colors Adès could conjure. That, for me, redeemed what was left of the piece.
There was a talk-back session scheduled after the concert, but I left the hall, not wanting to shatter the mood that Adès had created. I also missed a pre-concert performance of the “O Albion” movement from Adès‘ Arcadiana as played by the Lyris Quartet. But that was not by choice; the Traffic Jam from Hell on U.S. 101 made it impossible to get to Disney Hall in time.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.