Two seasons after his Met Opera debut, Thomas Adès is back at Lincoln Center making his conducting debut at the New York Philharmonic. This week’s program brought an impressive rendering of his own tremendous orchestral work, Totentanz, as well as lighter fare in the form of Berlioz’s Les Franc-juges Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 in C major. The Beethoven was conducted animatedly but with little variation by Mr Adès; still, the musicians sounded fantastic in one of the works they each must have performed about a thousand times. In the second movement in particular, the orchestra achieved a very clear delineation between melodies and ideas while simultaneously letting their textures melt together into a beautiful balance. The third movement was most exceptional in terms of energy and range while still maintaining the delicate balance achieved during the second. The final movement ran along in crisply rippling and receding rivets and runs of sound, culminating in a lovely closing cadence. Mr Adès made the same predictable gestures throughout: sweeps of the arm, an occasional shake of the fist. The piece is both easy to listen to and easy to conduct, and it betrayed none of the turmoil and death that was to come.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voice
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voice

After the Beethoven was a similarly fine performance of similarly standard fare, this time in the form of Berlioz’s overture to his failed lyric drama, Les Francs-juges. The Philharmonic, now with their double bass section approximately tripled, fumbled through the opening but quickly found their footing with sweeping string passages and magnificent brass work. These impressively precise yet urgent brass sections, in combination with the funereal timpani, lamenting flutes, lumbering basses, and sawing violins, called to mind Berlioz’s later and more frequently-performed Symphonie fantastique. These more macabre sounds not only allowed for the bland Beethoven to fade from our minds, but also prepared us for the the centerpiece of the program.

Mr Adès seemed much more convincing and varied when conducting his own work, the U.S. première of Totentanz for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra. Set to the anonymous text accompanying a 15th-century German frieze, the work’s narrative follows Death as he dances down the rungs of human society, interacting with each category of people depicted on the frieze from the Pope on down to a peasant, maiden, and “tender babe”. Death was sung by Mark Stone, and the string of human characters was sung by Christianne Stotijn in a startling performance. “Now, loathsome form, you feed me to the worm,” she half-croaked, half-sang as "the Emperor", her voice rattling like the bones of Death’s collection.

Speaking of bones, the score calls for “animal bones or wood, ideally oak, one bone laid flat and hit with two other bones, up to six players at a time, therefore 18 bones required in all.” Mr Adès’s percussion section also requires four anvils, two Swanee whistles (plus referee’s whistle and siren whistles), two snake rattles, and a host of other sound producers. The monstrous percussion section in combination with the equally overwhelming number of non-percussion instruments led to an unbalanced feel that certainly was not aided by the acoustics of Avery Fisher. Mr Stone and Ms Stotijn were frequently overpowered and even drowned out; the strongest moments were the wordless walls of chaos. From the bombastic trombone of the opening (harkening back to the Berlioz) onwards through the clapping, tapping percussion and whining violins, the bits that consistently grabbed the attention and conveyed the pandemonium of Death’s compulsive corpse-hoarding were those in which the narrative was carried forward by stacks of sounds rather than words. The intensifying cacophony – instruments weeping and shouting and clamoring under Mr Adès’s guidance on the podium – was evocative enough of Death’s glee as it reined itself in and then burst out again in raucous eruptions and sadistic fervor. Mr Stone’s final passage – “Till the last day, sleep now: sleep on, consoled” – was his strongest, lulling the infant into a dance of death despite not yet having learned to walk. Ms Stotijn’s final repeated whispers of “Tanzen, Tanzen” were an unsettling farewell before the descent into enveloping silence.