LOS ANGELES — Among a plethora of intriguing and unusual (for a symphony orchestra) ideas this spring, the Los Angeles Philharmonic concocted a multi-genre Gen X Festival, Gen X being shorthand for the generation born between 1965 and 1980. Having thus set the age guidelines, the Phil promptly went out and violated them, including works written by Millennials, a Boomer, even a Silent Generation holdover in a festival supposedly designed to explore the creativity of a specific age group. What’s the point, then, of putting a label on it?
Yet the centerpiece of the festival was indeed produced by a bonafide Gen X-er, Thomas Adès, a familiar presence at the LA Phil in this century who also was the curator of the so-called classical portions of the Gen X Festival. It was the long-awaited U.S. premiere (heard on April 29) of his complete Dante, a three-part, 91-minute, evening-length ballet based on The Divine Comedy that not only holds up beautifully as an orchestral piece but is the most obvious sign that we are now witnessing the full blossoming of Adès’ potential in real time.
It all came together for Adès in this work — the ability to handle and structure large forms; the lyrical bent that emerged in his music around the time of the opera The Tempest; the mastery of splashy orchestration and unusual effects; the homages, irreverent and not, to past masters; the delivery of shock, whimsy, darkness, and spiritual elevation in one package. The only British piece I can compare this to is Benjamin Britten’s wonderful, still little-known, evening-length ballet The Prince Of The Pagodas, and for me, Dante ranks right up there with Britten’s work.
There were changes of plans and one big roadblock along the way. The LA Phil originally had commissioned what they thought would be a 25-minute curtain-raiser, but what they got in May 2019 was a 45-minute showpiece called Inferno, the first half of a proposed full-length work for the Royal Ballet of London that eventually became Dante. The whole thing was supposed to have been played in L.A. for the first time in America in April 2021, but the lingering COVID shutdown pushed it back to the last weekend in April this year.
Inferno caused a sensation both at its in-concert world premiere here in May 2019 and in the staged version here with the visiting Royal Ballet that July — and it still proved to be a crowd-pleaser as the first part of Dante at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the complete concert presentation. Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil registered a mighty noise in the opening descent into Hell, delving further into the whimsy and rhythmic pulse underpinning the portraits of the motley underworld residents, knocking about two minutes off the timing of the 2019 performances.
Franz Liszt, a frequent purveyor of devilish subject matter himself, was the presiding spirit for this — at times literally so. The “Thieves” section, which sounds like turbocharged Shostakovich at his giddiest, actually contains verbatim stretches of Liszt’s piano piece Grand Galop Chromatique in a snazzy orchestral costume. It previously provoked spontaneous applause in mid-piece the way the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony always does — and did so again here.
Everything changed after intermission when we got to the newer sections of Dante that had yet to be written in 2019. “Purgatorio” opens with the ghostly sounds of swirling white noise produced by winds and brasses blowing without mouthpieces and string players swiping the bridges of their instruments with their bows. A recorded cantor loudly intones a Hebraic chant eventually taken up by voices from the Los Angeles Master Chorale from somewhere in the hall. With the orchestra often playing in unison, there is luminosity and then fury.
Just before the close of “Purgatorio” and heading into the ballet’s third part, “Paradiso,” Adès patiently builds a long, gradual ascent in which the general trajectory of the music seems to be slowly rising even when things seem to be stuck in place. The texture gets lighter and brighter as it goes, and toward the end, the invisible (to me from my seat) chorus re-enters wordlessly from behind as the orchestra rises in volume to a radiant triple forte. All of this is supposed to depict Dante’s rise into Heaven, and despite the abrupt shift in mood at the halfway point after intermission, Adès maintains a tight, satisfying sense of unity to the whole sprawling score.
What does the future hold for Dante? Evening-length ballets, even the handful of great ones by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Delibes, and the aforementioned Britten, are rarely programmed in toto in concert halls. And how many orchestras besides this one would dare devote an entire subscription weekend to one big recent work? Even here in what is supposed to be New Music Central, with superstar Dudamel on the podium, attendance was sparse.
A recording would be the most practical way to get the word out. Fortunately, these performances were being recorded, and since Dudamel is a Deutsche Grammophon artist, Dante might get released on that high-profile label. But then, maybe not; several other previously announced LA Phil recordings on DG, such as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Sibelius complete cycle from the 2000s, or Dudamel’s more recent Schumann and Dvořák symphonies, have yet to see a release.
Whatever happens, the LA Phil can add Adès’ Dante to the short list of genuinely major works that the orchestra has commissioned and premiered, sitting alongside pieces like Witold Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony and John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary.