Friday, March 13, 2015

Thomas Adès and The Creation of The World

The British composer Thomas Adès, who spends a lot of his time living in Los Angeles, conducted a short, interesting program at the San Francisco Symphony last weekend that focused on musical depictions of creation myths. He started with Charles Ives' 1908 The Unanswered Question where a horn player (Mark Inouye above) poses the musical question, a quartet of dissonant woodwinds chatters away behind him, and a completely independent string orchestra offstage represents the wisdom of the Druids. I've heard the piece three or four times at Davies over the years, and it never quite works, sounding both precious and completely swallowed up by the large hall. Still, I'd happily listen to Mark Inouye play the trumpet version of the phone book, and it's short, about six minutes.

The next piece was Darius Milhaud's 1923 La création du monde, a wonderful early integration of jazz with classical concert music. Unfortunately, Adès was the wrong conductor for this music, embalming it in slow, stately rhythms when it should be truly swinging like le jazz hot that Milhaud adored.

The final creationist bon-bon of the first half was a 10-minute dramatic soprano aria with large orchestra by Sibelius from 1913 called Luonnotar. The soloist was Dawn Upshaw above whose voice is still one of the soulful wonders of the world. I went home and put on her famous Gorecki Symphony No. 3 recording the next day just to hear her again.

The second half was devoted to Adès' own orchestral depiction of the Western creation myth called In Seven Days. Because his music is so dense, I spent the week before the concert listening to a performance on YouTube from German television (click here), and grew to enjoy the complex, sparkling music. Unfortunately, it was written in collaboration with a "video artist" partner, Tal Rosner, and the visual multimedia was distracting and annoying, starting with soothing ocean waves on the first day but devolving into 1990s screensavers by about Day 4.

Adès was a good conductor for his own music, and the piano soloist for what is basically a 30-minute piano concerto was Kirill Gerstein above, who played brilliantly.

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