In a world where programming new works is still equivalent to adding a check mark to an organisation’s tick list, including a full-length work in a subscription series is almost unheard of. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, arguably the most programmatically daring of the great American orchestras, scheduled with great success the first US performance of Dante, a 90-minute-long score by Thomas Adès. It was heartening to witness an almost full Disney Hall enthusiastically applauding the composer and performers at the end of Saturday's concert.

Gustavo Dudamel, Thomas Adès and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
© Courtesy of the LA Phil

Adès’ score was composed for The Dante Project, premiered last year by The Royal Ballet with choreography signed by Wayne McGregor and designed by Tacita Dean. Like other ballet scores, from The Sleeping Beauty to The Rite of Spring, it conjures powerful images, even if those might not be the same as conceived by McGregor and Dean. 

Composing music for dance for the first time made Adès aware that he has to write more for bodies (in his words, “there is a fluidity, more connection”) than for minds (“that can move in mercurial, intellectual directions”). Scoring his opus for the same sized orchestra of 75 musicians as The Sleeping Beauty, the composer seems less preoccupied here with concise statements, allowing the sound tapestry to breathe more. Never a hard-core modernist, his music seems to be here more approachable than ever. References – Liszt, Offenbach, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Mahler, Shostakovich, Ravel – zoom in and out, sometimes clear and ironic, sometimes just barely recognisable hints. Instrumental solos – piccolo, trumpet, cor anglais, harp, cello – grab the attention, while Adès' trademark frequent metre changes, even measure by measure, never let listeners’ attention sag.

Inferno, the first and the longest movement, had its concert world première in 2019, the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted then, as it was now by Gustavo Dudamel. Inspired by Liszt’s Dante Sonata, the music starts with an awe-generating, downward-spiralling sound and continues with a carousel of images of great variety. Each of the 13 episodes illustrates a specific vice, but gloom is balanced by humour, slow and fast dance-inspired sequences alternate. Dudamel underlined the virtuosity of the writing, the inventive sound combinations, letting members of his excellent ensemble shine in their individual interventions.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic
© Courtesy of the LA Phil

Played after the interval, Purgatorio was the most surprising part. Adès incorporates here a series of pre-dawn Sephardic Shabbat prayers. The eerie voices of the hazzans (cantors) – detached from and echoed by a wonderfully Oriental orchestral soundscape – were recorded at the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem and one might conjecture that the composer has used them as a hidden signature, similarly to Bach or Shostakovich employing references to their own names.

Aiming for a “different sound world” for each section, Adès conceived the Mahler-evoking Paradiso as a musical spiral that keeps climbing higher and higher. Despite Dudamel and his musicians’ effort to sustain the tension, the movement seemed a tad too long, especially coming after the extraordinary previous two. The sense of indefatigable motion – of both the pilgrim traversing the afterlife and the wayfarer poet forced to leave his beloved Florence and never allowed to return – is a constant of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the seven centuries since Dante’s death, great artists referring to the poem – from Liszt to Blake to Rodin – succeeded to capture this sense of quest and, at the same time, to include references to their own times and surroundings. Finalised during the pandemic, Adès’ Dante is their 21st century equivalent. We are fortunate to be his contemporaries.