After Long Covid Delay, New(ish) Adès Concerto And Champion Hit Town

Kirill Gerstein was soloist in Thomas Adès’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra at its premiere in Boston in 2019 and again Feb. 11 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

LOS ANGELES — Four years after the Covid pandemic shut down all concert life, we’re still digging out of the wreckage.

One of the first concerts to be canceled contained the local premiere in April 2020 of Thomas Adès’ then-new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the composer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the work’s designated champion, Kirill Gerstein, at the keyboard. Fortunately for Adès fans, an excellent recording of the concerto with Adès, Gerstein, and the commissioning Boston Symphony had already come out a few weeks earlier on Deutsche Grammophon, so it wasn’t a complete loss. Yet the live performance had to wait nearly four years to be rescheduled, finally landing at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Feb. 11. Adès and Gerstein were back in place, along with the Phil, of course, and all was rectified.

The Adès Piano Concerto has been tagged as a retreat to traditional classical forms for the composer as he was nearing his 50s — with its stereotypical fast-slow-fast tempo layout in three movements of roughly equal length and allusions to piano concertos of the past. Looking at it another way, though, it is Adès feeling his oats after his avant-garde youth and subsequent triumphs on the world’s most prestigious stages, looking to visit the pantheon of great 20th-century composers as an equal, and having a good time communing with them.

As I hear it, the Piano Concerto is about fun, virtuoso fun, summoning the ghosts of Ravel in a semi-jazzy mood, Prokofiev in the percussiveness of the attacks in the first movement, even the thundering, nearly parodic octaves à la Rachmaninoff in the coda of the finale. Underneath the fun are thickets of changing meters and cross-rhythms — including one doozy of a passage for muted brasses in the finale — with plenty of don’t-try-this-at-home tricks and less-flashy ruminations for the soloist. Gerstein devoured it, the Phil played it superbly, and Adès led it at a somewhat faster clip than he did in Boston.

The Philharmonic also found itself playing another piece by Adès under Adès for the first time this weekend — well, sort of. Back in 2006, with the premiere of The Tempest still fresh in many minds, Adés led the LA Phil in excerpts from that opera along with some other musical tempests of the past. But Five Spells from The Tempest is a relatively new (2022) suite from that Adès score, hopscotching through the entire opera in only about 20 minutes. It makes an overwhelming impression when heard live with a huge orchestra on a concert stage. Predictably, the biggest impact was made by the opening “spell,” the “Overture (Storm)”— a loud, dynamic sonic trip that tries to outstorm Sibelius’ own prelude to his incidental music for The Tempest and practically succeeds, armed with modernistic harmonies.

Thomas Adès (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic)

Earlier, Gerstein had made his first appearance of the afternoon with the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, which the pianist brought to an unusually virulent boil before the pianist could fall in with his own weighty touch. The whole performance went smashingly, with tough percussive attacks from Gerstein and plenty of bassy gloom from the orchestra that also managed to be wonderfully transparent in texture. I don’t think I’ve heard it played better.

To wrap everything up at the end, Adès cranked himself into an even more fevered physical pitch in order to lead a tempestuous rendition of Ravel’s La Valse. He was all over the podium, dancing, swaying, standing ramrod straight when the music was march-like, even executing a few Lenny Leaps. It wasn’t a gratuitous display for the audience either: The orchestra responded audibly to virtually every gesture. Sometimes, more can result in more.