For many of his admirers, Thomas Adès is, first and foremost, one of the top composers of his generation. Every new (or not quite new) Adès endeavour is met with eagerness and high expectations.  

Thomas Adès © Hilary Scott
Thomas Adès
© Hilary Scott

At Tanglewood, he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in one of his most recent  compositions, the Powder Her Face suite. Commissioned by a consortium of famous institutions (including the Berlin Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall) the opus made the round of musical capitals in the last year. Adès himself conducted the first performances at Symphony Hall. The suite is actually a reworking and re-orchestration of musical themes – dances and vocal segments – from the opera that made the composer famous at age 24.

I have always considered Adès an artist in the vein of Pablo Picasso: extremely gifted, protean, not afraid to let influences and even direct quotes be easily recognizable, but, at the same time, transforming everything he is touching into something sounding totally fresh, pulsating with energy. Listening again to the Powder Her Face suite, I was impressed anew by Adès’ skill as an orchestrator, by his ability to put together unusual timbres. The inclusion of saxophones (Gregory Floor and Ryan Yuré) didn’t only introduce jazz inflexions but made the entire ensemble glitter differently. The soaring lines of the violin (Associate Concertmaster Alexander Velinzon) and the harp interventions (Jessica Zhou) sounded very special in the overall context of music depicting grotesque and debauchery. Nevertheless, I wished that the almost half-an-hour-long work would have been trimmed down. There are indeed some small passages that don’t seem to go anywhere.

Christian Tetzlaff and Thomas Adès © Hilary Scott
Christian Tetzlaff and Thomas Adès
© Hilary Scott

For the first of the performances he is conducting at Tanglewood this summer, Adès – now in his second of three seasons as BSO’s first ever Artistic Partner – selected two Sibelius masterpieces to share the program with his own composition. The D minor Violin Concerto might have been a source of inspiration for his own incursion in the genre. As in Sibelius, the soloist performs his pyrotechnics on top of an orchestra ploughing the lower depths of the sound spectrum. The Finnish composer’s polyrhythms might have guided Adès to ask the violin and the orchestra to play in different meters.

The afternoon’s soloist was Christian Tetzlaff, returning to Tanglewood after a several years long hiatus. His ability to bring freshness and an enchanted inner life to even the most trodden of musical works is unsurpassed. So is his talent to almost imperceptibly vary colors and dynamics, as he did in the extended cadenza that plays the role of a development section in the first, sonata-form movement. For Teztlaff, showing off his technical facility has never been a goal per se. Every virtuosic passage (there is an abundance of them in this concerto) was handled with modesty and what seemed to be minimal effort. For the German artist, the most important attribute of a successful interpretation has always been staying true to the composer’s perceived intentions.

A veritable musical polymath, Thomas Adès is a conductor of authority and skill. He knows exactly what he wants from an orchestra, whether he is conducting his own compositions or not. His gestures are not necessarily elegant but are always efficient. During the concerto, he interfered minimally with Tetzlaff’s vision, especially in the Adagio di molto. The transition from the woodwinds’ introduction to the violin’s theme, “painted” in large brushstrokes, was marvelous.

After intermission, in Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, Thomas Adès kept the textures limpid, maintaining well the balance between strings and winds, and keeping individual contributions – bassoon, horns – within preset boundaries. The obsessive, five quarter notes pattern moving from one instrument to another was handled most naturally. He made sure to draw attention to the undercurrents in the Andante or to a contrapuntal sequence in the strings in the first movement, letting dissonances introduce themselves. In short, a fine version of a Sibelius piece, which is probably at the verge of being considered standard repertoire, as filtered by the mind of another composer.