music.minnesota.publicradio.orgmusic Feature

Thomas Adès:
Classical Music's New Phenom
by Rex Levang, July 1999

Curriculum Vitae | Works | Style I Inspiration
The Opera | Comparisons | Discography

Listen (RealAudio 3.0): AurochsLiving FuneralsArcadianaPowder Her Face

MPR and the Minnesota Orchestra Present "These Premises Are Alarmed."

These Premises Are Alarmed by Thomas Adès is a short piece - scarcely five minutes - for full orchestra that was premiered in the Halle Concert Society's new hall in Manchester, England, in September 1996. For the premiere, the composer offered these comments: "The thrill of writing for a new, as yet unknown acoustic was at the forefront of my mind in composing These Premises Are Alarmed, and the central section of the pieces is disguised to give as strong a sense as possible of the size and shape of the space it is played in."

A vehicle for collective virtuousity, the music shows off nearly every sound and playing technique known to orchestral instruments, while the tonal space ranges from the highest tones of the piccolo to the lowest resonance of the bass - all this in a complex texture propelled by inventive rhythms cast within frequently shifting meters. All is clear, precise, dynamic.

The Minnesota Orchestra will be performing These Premises Are Alarmed as part of their British Gems concert on Friday, July 30 at 8 pm. The entire concert will be broadcast live on all Minnesota Public Radio Classical Music stations, including KSJN 99.5 in the Twin Cities.

Adapted from Minnesota Orchestra Showcase program notes by Mary Ann Feldman.


WHEN THE MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA performs a new composition by Thomas Adès later this month, it may not be a media event quite on the order of the Ricky Martin boom, or Queen Amidala's problems on the green planet Naboo.

Still, it could turn out to be part of something just as noteworthy. In the world of classical composers right now, Adès is the bright young British star who has gone, in a very short time, from being a student at Cambridge to a sought-after composer whose works are performed all over the world.

And unlike the world of mass entertainment, with its blockbusters and "defining moments" that roll in with regularity as if on a well-oiled conveyor belt, classical music doesn't see such phenoms too often. The acclaim surrounding Adès has hardly had a parallel in recent years. To find a similar wave of excitement, you'd have to go back a decade, or several decades. Some observers are even going back half a century and calling Adès the brightest hope in British composing since Benjamin Britten.

Adès was just 21 when he was taken up by a prestigious publisher in 1992 on the basis of two completed works, a song cycle and a chamber symphony. Those were followed by a string quartet, several chamber works, and a work for chamber orchestra, which won Adès critical acclaim and a passel of commissions and prizes. He followed these up with a "shocking" (by traditional standards) opera and a big orchestral piece, Asyla (the plural of "asylum"); these have won Adès some of his best reviews yet.

What kind of music does he create, this young man on whom such hopes are hanging? Here are one listener's impressions of some qualities you may hear in the work of Thomas Adès, along with some background on this career that has been launched so spectacularly.

Thomas AdèsCurriculum Vitae
Adès (pronounced "ADD-ess") was born in London in 1971. He comes from a family of intellectuals (though not professional musicians), which may explain his easy relationship with high culture and the modernist tradition in which he works.

Adès was trained as a pianist and continues to make appearances as a pianist and conductor.

Some of Adès's prominent works so far are Living Toys, an ambitious work for an ensemble of 13 players; Arcadiana, a string quartet; Powder Her Face, a chamber opera; and Asyla, for large orchestra. There are also songs and choral pieces, shorter orchestral works, and works for various chamber combinations.

Adès is currently working on two operas, so it may be that he's settling down in one genre more than he has heretofore.

Adès gives the listener a lot to digest - he's a great includer. Not that he writes musical collages, but Adès never gives the impression that he shuns an idea because it's unusual, avoids writing musical lines because they're difficult, or writes a one-track piece if he would rather develop it with contrasts and episodes.

Adès has expressed admiration for composers such as Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, who glory in setting different rhythms and events going at the same time. (If Adès writes a prominent line, he'll often choose to surround it with skittering rhythms in the other parts; this is a very typical sound for him.)

Listen - excerpt from "Aurochs," from Living Toys
(How to Listen)

Similarly, he loves to mix instruments in unusual combinations. To get just the timbre he wants, he'll pull seldom-used instruments into the orchestra, such as accordion or bass trumpet or upright piano, or even enrich the percussion section with things like fishing reels and roasting pans.

He doesn't show a predilection for long pieces, however, and he can use simple musical materials, too. In Living Toys, one recurring theme is built on the notes do-re-mi.

Listen - excerpt from "Playing Funerals," from Living Toys
(How to Listen)

There's a slow passage in his string quartet, Arcadiana, which seems to invoke an adagio by Beethoven or Elgar:

Listen - beginning of "O Albion" from Arcadiana
(How to Listen)

One source of Adès' ideas certainly seems to be the whole world of mental pictures - literature, stories, private ideas. Living Toys is a picture of a boy whose dreams (his "toys") take on their own reality. The accompanying text suggests images of bullfighting, and the late Stanley Kubrick's 2001. The piece that the Minnesota Orchestra will be playing had an impetus in Adès's own experience: he was in a brand-new building and accidentally set off the security system. The title: These Premises Are Alarmed.

The Opera
Adès' longest work to date - and, because of its plot, the most talked-about - is his opera, Powder Her Face. In it, the central character, "the Duchess," sits in a hotel room , from which she is soon to be evicted for nonpayment. Episodes from her scandalous past follow one another, and the small cast does double duty as a variety of lurid onlookers. (The story is based on one of the great scandals of postwar Britain, the divorce of the Duchess of Argyll.)

Imitation and pastiche are usually subtle tools for Adès, but in this theatrical context, he wields them boldly. One big number is a 1930s pop song, a la Noel Coward. And when Death comes to the Duchess, in the form of a formidable Hotel Manager, the orchestra blares out a phrase from Schubert's "Death and the Maiden."

Listen - excerpt from Powder Her Face, Scene 8
(How to Listen)

Commentators have tried to evoke some of the qualities of Adès' music by invoking names - very great names - from the past. Among them: Berlioz (presumably for orchestral color and boldness of imagination), Messiaen (rhythmic invention), Berg (expressivity).

Extravagant as these claims can seem, they're harmless if they're taken not literally, but as guideposts. On that understanding, one more comparison might be Maurice Ravel, for poise and craftmanship, with occasional moments of ferocious energy. (For what it's worth, both Adès and Ravel have written tributes to Francois Couperin.)

Three disks of Adès' music are out on EMI Classics. A fourth disk including Asyla and other works will be released soon, and then all of Adès' published music will be available on disk.

Life Story (EMI CDZ 7243 5 69699 2)
(Catch: Darknesse Visible; Still Sorrowing; Under Hamelin Hill; Five Eliot Landscapes; Traced Overhead; Life Story)

Living Toys (EMI CDZ 7243 5 72271 2)
(Living Toys; Arcadiana; Sonata da Caccia; The Origin of the Harp; Gefriolsae me)

Powder Her Face (EMI CDCB 7243 5 56649 2 )(2 discs)

Recordings are available from the
Public Radio MusicSource: 800-75-MUSIC.

© Copyright 1999, Minnesota Public Radio.