Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Symphonic sanctuaries


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"Asyla are places of safety," commentator Paul Griffiths begins his album notes on a new, composer-conducted recording of Thomas Ades' Asyla, the 1997 work that still holds pride of place among the out composer's works for full orchestra (LSO Live). "We are all of us asylum-seekers. Asyla are also places of confinement. We may all of us, at times, feel ourselves to be living in a madhouse." He ends his thought with a conjecture that concert halls, and musical forms such as the symphony, may be asyla "where we feel at home, or once felt at home."

No sector in our musical universe feels less at home than the composers, now chafing at the limitations, the putative exhaustion, of the means of the standard orchestral ensemble. Not infrequently, that resistance tells on audiences. For a generation now, Ades – along with his fellow gay Brit George Benjamin, whose music could be described verbally in many of the same terms, though the two men's scores are both immediately recognizable and essentially different – has been a notable exception.

Audiences hearing Ades' dense, complex scores, whose instrumentation rarely wanders beyond extensions like Mahler's and Messiaen's, know instinctively that they are not being zoomed by a prankster, that the composer is in every particular mindful of both form and content, both of which are deployed to evoke emotional responses in listeners that may well venture into taxing extremes but whose primary purpose is not to assault. The intrinsic value of this aesthetic can hardly be overstated.

Among living composers, Ades, who is also a formidable conductor and pianist, has a current reputation poor old Arnold Schoenberg would die again for. This live CD (two discs, including a Blu-ray and a SACD) derives from two 2016 London Symphony Orchestra concerts, one of which included Asyla, the other an all-Ades program comprised of the works Tevot, Polaris and "Brahms."

What strikes you about Ades' 2016 Asyla is how different it is from the earlier versions by Simon Rattle, the LSO's incoming conductor who was a trenchant advocate of Ades' work as music director of the powerful Berlin Philharmonic, opening his 2002 inaugural concert in Berlin with Asyla, after making its first commercial recording with his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1997.

Rattle's is a relentless, riling, often scathing performance that tilts the balance of the asylum idea in the direction of the insane. With no sacrifice of acuity, Ades' Asyla feels more lived in, more rounded, more balanced – which makes the ways it rocks out, particularly in the techno-tinged third movement Ecstasio, all the more pulse-pounding. But there's a feeling here that Ades rightly trusts a piece that has, for all the challenges it poses, held its own.

Tevot (2005-06), which Rattle also took to Berlin, is a bark on a different sea. The intellectually playful composer jostles the Hebrew word of the title, which means bars, between an almost graphic sense of the measure-bars of music, and the associations the word has with the reed basket with which Moses' mother floated him to safety on the Nile. That's a lot of cargo, but in this directly affecting work, Ades floats it by and through the listener.

It's a work of mostly quiet, stratospheric extremes, with high music falling out of silence like manna from heaven. It merges with an Ivesian sense of layering musics of many characters (including, again, the club, in an identifiably gay sense). In its final third, violins at the upper extremes of their pitches usher in a buoyant tune that carries the piece to its consoling, ambiguously calm conclusion.

Polaris (2010), the program's final, single-movement "symphony," was performed at Davies in 2011 by the SF Symphony under MTT, accompanied, as it was at its premiere in Miami with MTT's New World Symphony, by a video projection by Ades' partner, Tal Rosner. In another indication of the power of Ades' music, there seems to have been agreement that, while Rosner's atmospheric video did not detract, the substance was in the orchestra (in which a brass choir is placed at the back of the hall for an antiphonal effect). It's a Richard Strauss- and ape-free 2001 space odyssey and my favorite Ades orchestral score. The brass choir runs offense through the skittering, star-spangled orchestral canvas as the score surges from event to event, and the ethereal sections are transporting. It has no significant competition on CD.

The concluding "Brahms," a five-minute setting for baritone of an Alfred Brendel poem about the 19th-century titan, skirts parody while making a declaration of independence. It's a tart coda to this glorious symphonic trilogy.

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