Musical Friendship Blossoms In BSO Concerto Premiere

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By Keith Powers

BOSTON – Great partners enhance each other. The Boston Symphony Orchestra benefits significantly from the presence of its Artistic Partner, Thomas Adès – on the podium, at the piano, and as a composer.

Gerstein takes the work to New York, Leipzig next. (Marco Borggreve)

And Adès benefits equally from his musical friendship with pianist Kirill Gerstein. That friendship blossomed into Adès’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, which Gerstein premiered March 7 in Symphony Hall, with the composer on the podium. The BSO takes the work to Carnegie Hall March 20; Adès and Gerstein also perform it with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig on April 25 and 26.

Adès and Gerstein have collaborated, as composer-performer and as duo pianists, multiple times over the past decade, with many of those appearances in Boston. Adès’ residency as the BSO’s Artistic Partner – begun in 2016, recently extended through 2021 – is a rich relationship that complements the BSO’s international reputation, and his own.

The generic title of this new concerto off-handedly implies Adès’s intention to write in a more traditional form – at least more traditional than the tone poem-like In Seven Days, his first piano concerto, which Gerstein performed with the BSO in 2012. In three movements, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra may have a traditional form – with fast-slow-fast movements – but Adès simply co-opts the structure to speak in his own language.

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That language can have a light touch but always has deep textures. Aggressively conflicting rhythms undermine any sense that Adès is simply filling in predetermined musical forms.

Adès’ partnership with the BSO extends through 2021. (William Townson)

His music challenges. The concerto opens as a burlesque, with soloist and orchestra fully engaged in a roadhouse, improvisation-seeming exclamation. The movement gradually shifts to a piano conversation with the horns. In the cadenza, Adès instructs the soloist to treat the measure-by-measure alteration of 4/4 and 5/4 as “ebb and flow, rather than strictly literal.” The effect: It rocks back and forth, suggesting stasis rather than progress. Horns, and eventually the entire orchestra, join in the cadenza to add color, changing its impact subtly.

The pianist sets the mood in the middle movement – nocturnal, almost pessimistic. The melody works downward, the harmonies work upward, and two separate themes intertwine. The burlesque, antic feeling returns in the finale, with much competitive give-and-take. Adès refers to the interactions as “tumbling” in his program note, like a ball bouncing down the stairs.

The score has the concerto marked in C major, but it roams continuously through different tonal centers, especially in the finale. The scoring is reserved – certainly not clotted with instructions like some – but precise. Adès writes down what he wants, but leaves room for the pianist to make music.

This is a piano piece – this concerto is no partnership. Gerstein, rarely resting, dominated large sections with huge chords and unusual scales. The harmonically rich orchestral part is no mere accompaniment, but the soloist certainly leads.

The BSO partnership likewise benefits Adès in obvious ways: This orchestra responds to his leadership, and it performs his music with enthusiasm. He conducts with conviction, both arms almost always engaged, and this entire program exhibited that focus. Opening the evening with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Adès demanded strong, caricature-like dynamics. He started the orchestra hot, then shushed them right down.

It brought the piece alive with exaggeration, the strings, horns and harp playing ppp to fff with almost reckless alteration. The heavy, physical dance energy came off as overpowering – something Liszt (and Mephistopheles) probably desired. The work flees the stage as a nightingale, flying off in the flute.

Adès and the orchestra brought equal energy to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which closed the evening. But it seemed a curious inclusion on this program.

After the concerto, Adès remained on the podium to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 with the BSO. (Townson)

Make no mistake – the playing was crisp, although this orchestra has faced greater challenges.

There is much to love in this symphony, but its ballet-score feeling and repetitiveness are drawbacks. Appealing musical ideas, like the foreboding “fate” fanfare that fills the first movement, overstay their welcome.

The scherzo, with strings playing an extended pizzicato ostinato, and the trio section entirely in brass and winds, sets itself nicely as an antidote to the surging energy of the outer movements. But the highlight of this performance, and likely the entire BSO season, was Adès’ own concerto.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.

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