Thomas Adès devised a particularly thoughtful and illuminating Cleveland Orchestra program: each half mirrored the other, pairing music inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest with a suite of character pieces for violin and orchestra, first from Sibelius and then – dating almost exactly a century later – from Adès homself, with the composer at the podium in his TCO debut. A sure sign of the imaginative programming, all selections were first performances for this orchestra.

Thomas Adès
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Sibelius was commissioned to write incidental music for a 1926 production of The Tempest in Copenhagen, from which he subsequently extracted two suites of orchestral excerpts. These suites would be the last music the Finn committed to manuscript, perhaps fitting for a work based upon one of Shakespeare’s final plays. TCO offered the prelude and first suite; the former an unforgiving evocation of the roiling sea. It has been called “thoroughly onomatopoetic” insofar as it captures the sound of the titular storm itself rather than abstractly portraying it.

A silvery flute line decorated the stentorian trunk of The Oak Tree which opened the suite, and the subsequent Humoreske showed a lighter side of the drama. Caliban’s Song was memorable as a bold, swashbuckling character portrait. The highlight came in the Intrada with a gorgeously touching melody in the strings, accentuated by harp. The Storm closed as matters began amidst the crashing waves, with the orchestra offering an inimitably Shakespearean dramatic range

Thomas Adès conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Due to a publishing error, Sibelius’ six Humoresques are split between two non-consecutive opus numbers, but form a cohesive set nonetheless. Pekka Kuusisto served as a charismatic violin soloist, authentically capturing the spirit of his Finnish compatriot. Gently sighing gestures opened the first selection, setting up a melancholic, introspective violin line, but not without a lovely charm – and the performers remained unfazed when the stage lights momentarily went out! The more mercurial piece that followed had echoes of the finale of the composer’s great violin concerto; subsequent selections ranged from the humorous to the deeply lyrical.

Like the Sibelius Humoresques, Adès’ Märchentänze were also originally conceived for violin and piano before being orchestrated. Composed in 2020, the orchestral treatment was completed the following year, with Kuusisto premiering both versions. The four pieces probe English folk tradition for inspiration. In the first, a folksy melody sparkled in the violin’s upper register, colored with piquant dissonances and a striking orchestration that featured the rarely-heard contraforte. A slower and more songful dance followed, tinged by honeyed clarinet. A Skylark saw the instruments in imitation of each other, painting a collage of brilliant cacophony to suggest the titular birds. The closing Swift boasted jubilant music that practically danced off the page.

Pekka Kuusisto
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Adès' 2003 opera based upon The Tempest certainly did much to cement his stature as a leading contemporary composer. Two decades later, he is revisiting the work to give it life outside the opera house, styled as The Tempest Symphony­ – not unlike the treatment he gave to The Exterminating Angel, heard here last year (also paired with Sibelius). A co-commission from TCO, the present work was first performed last May by the London Philharmonic.

Brass and percussion conjured an overwhelming storm to begin, unleashing an unrelenting fury. Two character duets followed. In Ariel and Prospero, the former’s verbose part was captured in the high woodwinds, contrasted by the weight of the lower part. Ferdinand and Miranda was a love duet, lyrical at heart, and with sweet dissonances. Adès’ idiosyncratic orchestrion was on full display in The Feast – richly scored, and not without a memorable tuba solo. A dark, veiled passage in the low strings was a deeply felt moment of Prospero’s Farewell before the music drew to a close, rather unresolved.