Thomas Adès in San Francisco: A Warm, Welcoming Concert Among Friends

san-francisco-symphony-logoEarly October saw the San Francisco Symphony continuing it’s commendable streak of new music programming with a duet of programs highlighting the music of British composer Thomas Adès in both orchestral and chamber settings. Adès is considered in many circles a 21st century musical heartthrob: a conductor, pianist, and award-winning composer whose music seems to toe the line perfectly between widespread critical acclaim (in classical music terms) and adulation from new music aficionados. The chamber music concert at Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, October 4, 2013, featuring members of the orchestra with Adès himself on piano and harpsichord, offered an experience that, when performed alongside works by Debussy and Ravel, proved to be insightful, compelling and utterly delightful.

Thomas Adès - Photo by  Maurice Foxall

Thomas Adès – Photo by Maurice Foxall

The first half of the program featured Adès’ Sonata da caccia for harpsichord, horn and oboe and Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp. This pairing in particular highlighted Adès’ penchant for French music and it’s direct influence on his own work. The Sonata da caccia, scored for an instrumentation originally conceived by Debussy for a sonata cycle he never completed, is an homage to Adès’ main compositional muse, Francois Couperin. Having arranged a number of Couperin’s keyboard works for larger ensembles, Adès utilized that experience to evoke the composer’s melodic lines and textures in a way that is playfully derivative. The result is a unique, ever-evolving kaleidoscope of near-cacophony and resolution. Oboist Jonathan Fischer and horn player Chris Cooper expertly navigated baroque licks with the rhythmic stubbornness of wind-up toys, while the composer wove playfully cascading gestures around them on the harpsichord, which was especially soft-spoken in cavernous Davies Hall. That Adès’ animated playing elicited such incredibly soft sounds from the keyboard was made more entertaining by the fact that he is built like a football player. This visual quirkiness, however, was well-matched by the music. Sonata da caccia, in its moments of angular energy and fleeting, mischievous repose, was an example of “music about music” at its most entertaining.

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola, and harp was a logical and effective close to the first half, being sonically very different but conceptually similar to the Adès work preceding it. Cited in the program notes as a “near-masterpiece” (with no objections here!), the vibrantly colorful nature of Debussy’s work was brought into full focus by the comfort and skill of the performers. They truly sounded as though they were part of the same, gorgeous-sounding instrument. The experience was like a long, tender, oddly sensual hug from someone wearing a strong, pleasant perfume.

Baritone John Brancy (photo credit: fletcher

Baritone John Brancy (photo credit: fletcher

The second half consisted of two pieces that were more conceptually self-contained. Playing out like a melodrama with starkly contrasting scenes, Ravel’s Chansons madécasses is an evocative setting of poems depicting a Creole man’s world circa late 18th century, which apparently consisted of lounging under leafy trees, loads of sexy time, and a touch of racism. Ravel’s simple and elegant setting was performed with clarity, taste, and passion by the performers (including Adès on the piano and guest baritone John Brancy), with careful attention to the darkly psychological sensuality of each movement.

The evening’s closing piece, Adès’ Piano Quintet, offered a more abstract take on musical drama. Composed in classic sonata form, his piano quintet is of similar ilk as Sonata da caccia, with the focus now being less on a specific style and more on the classical tradition itself. Indeed, from the opening bars – a violin melody of rolled declamations a la Haydn followed immediately by a whole-tone scale a la Bartok – one gets the feeling that the composer is turning his gaze backward. This referential quality also appeared in other passages. A too-beautiful second theme, played on piano, could have easily come straight from a Mozart slow movement save for the knot of rhythmically jagged string drones inhabiting the same space.

This concept returned again and again in the Adès works of the evening, a kind of sound that was almost familiar, but made uncomfortably complicated somehow. A review of the score for the piano quintet revealed that much of the music is just as uncomfortably notated. However, something in Adès’ sound in those moments of faux-confusion is strangely charming, as though listening to someone with amnesia try to recollect the history of chamber music. And surely, just as the clutter is about to be overwhelming, there arrives a sudden, calculated moment of clarity.

The audience was modestly sized and reflected the gamut of Adès’ fan base. There were jeans, suits, hair of varying colors and coverage, people of different tax brackets. Most impressive, however, was the unified sense of energy, the kind of energy that can only come from a living composer performing his own music with musicians of the highest caliber And yet despite the level of talent on the stage, there was also a sense of casualness. During Adès’ Piano Quintet, cellist Amos Yang had a bow malfunction that caused the piece to stop briefly. After announcing he would need to run off-stage, Adès, in an almost endearing gesture of self-deprecation, exclaimed “my fault” as chuckles sounded among the audience and ensemble members. Such occurrences are never ideal, but in many ways act as a telling barometer for the social attitude of a concert. It’s what separates a stuffy, professional affair from a warm, welcoming concert among friends. I’m happy to say that for this particular evening, Davies Hall felt more like the latter.