Power on for Adès’ blazing concerto premiere, CSO debut

Fri Apr 07, 2023 at 11:20 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kirill Gerstein performed Thomas Adès’ Piano Concerto with the composer conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

British composer-conductor Thomas Adès made a noteworthy Chicago Symphony Orchestra podium debut Thursday night. But for a while it looked like the concert wasn’t going to happen at all.

A partial power outage hit downtown Chicago early Thursday evening including Symphony Center. Diesel-powered backup lights provided enough illumination to allow the audience to enter the hall while Com Ed crews worked to fix the issue. Fortunately, the lights were restored and the show went on, albeit an hour late and with a shortened program.

Adès, 51, has been among the most intriguing creative voices in music since bursting upon the scene in his 20s when he was championed by Simon Rattle. He has written prolifically in all forms including three operas (most recently, The Exterminating Angel), several concertos and a slew of chamber music. Adès’ music is striking for its noirish themes, virtuosic craft and audacious scoring. In recent decades Adès has been increasingly noted for his conducting, and this week’s concerts marked his belated Chicago debut.

The evening led off with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which served as a worthy calling card for Adès’ podium style. Once a concert mainstay, Liszt’s potboiler has not been played by the CSO downtown since Georg Solti led the last performances three decades ago. 

A tall man, Adès directed the music with emphatic, thrusting gestures, eliciting similarly emphatic, sharply accented performances. His firmly projected rhythms brought out the diablerie of the main motif, yet Adès also pointed contrasts, as with a tender rendering of the cellos’ yielding theme. In the closing section he found mordant humor in the lower brass writing and whipped up suitable frenzy in the Dionysian revels while tamping down the unhealthy vulgarity of Liszt’s scoring.

Thomas Adès conducted the CSO in music of Liszt, Janáček and Adès Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Adès’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was written for Kirill Gerstein and commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Friends and longtime collaborators, the two men gave the world premiere with the BSO in 2019 (reprised last year) and the same artists were onstage for the concerto’s Chicago debut Thursday night.

The composer’s coolly acerbic style has often seemed inimical to populist elements. But in this concerto and other recent works, Adès seems to have found a way to reconcile his somewhat anarchic complexity more fluently within the parameters of traditional form. As a result, his music has attained greater formal cohesion and a more openly melodic quality (as with his recent Dante ballet music, performed last month in Boston).

Cast in three movements and running a taut 22 minutes, Adès’ Piano Concerto outwardly preserves storied tradition with its fast-slow-fast structure, demanding solo part and rambunctious orchestra.  

Yet while no one would mistake this gnarly music for Rachmaninoff, there are moments where Adès’ restless, roiling concerto seems to pay homage to the past. Amid the hectic broken-glass bravura of the opening movement, there are fleeting lyrical solo passages, as if one is glimpsing the romantic concerto tradition in the rearview mirror. This is most manifest in the somber slow movement (Andante gravamente), where Gerstein gave the pensive main theme a poised and searching expression.

The barnstorming finale (Allegro gioioso) marries an off-center joie de vivre with old-fashioned keyboard brilliance. There is an antic quality in the opening orchestral “call to arms” and galumphing solo theme. Rapid-fire Beethovenian arguing over keys segues into a comical brass burlesque, culminating in thrilling solo runs up the keyboard capped by resounding orchestral chords in a slam-bang coda.

Ultimately, Adès’ opus feels like a piano concerto for our time—edgy and unsentimental, yet fresh and exhilarating in its solo fireworks and subversive exuberance.

The writing for the soloist is intense and relentless with barely a bar providing respite. Performing the score from an iPad, Gerstein handled all of the blistering demands with unflagging virtuosity and concentration even in the most hectic passages. 

The composer drew boldly projected brilliance from the orchestra in his score and all involved seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Both Gerstein’s performance and Adès’ music deserved more than the two curtain calls they received, enthusiastic as those were.

CSO president Jeff Alexander took the stage after intermission to announce that Sibelius’s Prelude and Suite No. 1 from The Tempest would be jettisoned “due to the late hour.” While arguable under the circumstances, the elision was still unfortunate on two counts—first for depriving Thursday’s patient audience of hearing 25 minutes of rare Sibelius; and second for not being able to experience what Adès could do with more lightly scaled music than the big showpieces on the program.

Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba concluded the abridged evening. One of the many masterworks the Czech composer completed in his final decade, his “Rhapsody for Orchestra” depicts the title Cossack warrior (of Ukrainian origins) in heroic terms, even as each of the three sections marks an unsparingly violent death. Following the bleak scenario of Gogol’s short novel, Taras shoots his traitorous son Andrei, his other son Ostap is executed by Polish soldiers, and Taras himself is burned at the stake, although his heroic theme emerges to soar, triumphant at the coda.

One can imagine a more subtle colorist drawing greater nuances from this kaleidoscopic score. But Adès ensured that Janáček’s pungent harmonies and idiosyncratic orchestration were put across with maximum impact. Scott Hostetler lifted an elegiac English horn solo in “The Death of Andrei,” the satiric mazurka painting the Polish forces twirled crazily, and Adès built the final section to a sonorous denouement with the large orchestral forces capped by tolling chimes and floor-shaking organ.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

8 Responses to “Power on for Adès’ blazing concerto premiere, CSO debut”

  1. Posted Apr 08, 2023 at 10:42 am by Ryan

    The Adès Concerto was a great success. The third movement in particular had relentless energy. It is great to see the CSO perform a work by a top living composer instead of some boring neoromantic kitsch.

  2. Posted Apr 09, 2023 at 1:29 pm by Lewis

    Saturday’s concert was wonderful; too bad there were so many empty seats, in contrast to the packed house for Carmina Burana a few weeks ago.

    Always interesting to see a composer conduct his own music, especially a work as fascinating as Ades’ Piano Concerto. As the other three pieces on the program showed, Ades is a fine conductor as well as composer.

  3. Posted Apr 09, 2023 at 2:28 pm by Jeff R

    Great concert and program. The Sibelius was muscular and well executed.

  4. Posted Apr 09, 2023 at 4:37 pm by Tod Verklärung

    The decision to excise the Sibelius on Thursday night was probably not only due to the late hour. The amount of overtime otherwise paid to the musicians also likely figured into the determination. Decisions such as this may save the CSO money. How many audience members it alienates is also part of the unanswerable question.

  5. Posted Apr 10, 2023 at 10:38 am by Andy Catanzaro

    I too was disappointed at the less-than-full-house audience for Friday’s performance. Ades is one the three most exciting living composers in my book. What I don’t understand about his creative, new music is my joy to learn.

    The remarkable aspect of this concert that I didn’t expect was his extraordinary talent in showing off the CSO at its best in all the compositions! The Sibelius Tempest Suite was extraordinary! Taras Bulba blew me away! It was definitely worth the trip down from Milwaukee to hear this concert!

  6. Posted Apr 10, 2023 at 4:11 pm by Jeff R

    I was very surprised how much I enjoyed last Saturday’s concert. I supposed this could be another possible replacement for Muti? It would be interesting Kismet to have a younger top-notch composer as the CSO’s Music Director. Programming might be very interesting.

    That said, I have no idea about his commitments or if it’s even a fit. It would be interesting to know what the CSO Members thought of his style.

  7. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 12:30 am by Gerry A

    Kirill Gerstein & Ades really tore it up tonight & made it look EASY. We were there Thursday night at Terri Hemmert’s open bar warm up and crawled out at 8:15 when we figured it wasn’t going to happen.

    I would have also voted to jettison The Tempest Thursday night, but it was wonderful tonight and a great contrast to the other three pieces. I’d also be interested in what the CSO community has to say about Ades’ conducting. THAT was some VERY good playing and directing of complex music. Bravo!

  8. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 2:46 am by Peter DG

    We were at the Tuesday performance and agree with the above comments. This was the most exuberant playing by the CSO that I’ve ever heard – all four pieces.

    Some outstanding solo playing by the CSO musicians – even the harp was quite prominent in three of the four pieces. And Gerstein played an encore – etude rainbow by Ligeti.

    Today (Wednesday) at 3:30 Ades will be rehearsing the CSO for it’s next concert – it will be interesting to see how he and the musicians interact.

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