Tuesday night Thomas Ades was the guest pianist, filling Leonard Stein’s slot, in the Piano Spheres concert at Zipper Hall of the Colburn School. This brought out the largest audience I’ve seen in a Piano Spheres concert, even larger than the audience for Gloria Cheng’s series opener. The buzz about Ades has been good, to understate the reactions. Perhaps our important piano series is beginning to get the audience it deserves.
The program to let us hear Ades, the pianist, was not showy or flashy. It wasn’t new: the whole second half of the program is on his EMI recording. And while a few pieces were easy, even those were played with such commitment and conviction by Ades that I felt I understood what the composer heard in his mind while composing. The program started with a survey of 40 years of the piano music of Janacek; first was a grouping of five short pieces, beginning with a work from 1886 and ending with a fragment from 1928. This was followed “In the Mist” (1912) by the middle-aged, unsuccessful, teacher/composer whose opera had not yet been accepted by Prague; as pianist, Ades successfully presented the hesitency and introspection in Janacek. The Janacek was followed by two of his own works with elements of introspection, both early, both of which are on his debut recording, “Darknesse Visible” (1992) and “Traced Overhead” (1996). “Darknesse” has the brilliant student exploring and re-making a 1610 Downling song for lute; “Traced Ovehead” was a commission for the 25-year-old from the pianist Imogen Cooper; the title has been picked up as the title of a festival of the music and the conducting of Ades to be given at the Barbican in March and April of 2007.
The second half of the concert comprised ten of the short pieces in Niccolo Castiglioni’s “How I Spent the Summer” (1983), followed by three short works by Stravinsky. The concluding work was Conlon Nancarrow’s “Three Canons for Ursula” (1988), written for Ursula Oppens, for which the middle canon was thought to be unplayable and had been withheld. Kyle Gann has the story. Ades played the unplayable, without sweat, and without seeming to apply any more concentration than he did on the little waltz that Stravinsky wrote for children to be able to play. That man has talent.
On Sunday we attended the concert by the Philharmonic not on one of our series, despite the fact that the second half was a not-a-favorite symphony by a not-a-favorite composer. We felt that we could easily withstand the Tchaikovsky 6th to be able to hear Ades as composer and conductor leading the Phil in a performance of “Asyla” (1997). We first heard this in Ojai with Rattle conducting the Phil; the recording was an early transfer to my iPod. Sunday’s performance was another of those which I wish were available as a recording. I thought that Ades and the Phil gave a more interesting, and more persuasive, performance than Rattle’s recording. It’s a good work, and Ades is a good composer. In an unequal allocation of skills, Thomas Ades is also a pretty good conductor; yes, his technique with his left arm could use a little improvement, but he’s better than some other composers we know. His beat is clear and well-maintained; he handles changes of meter very smoothly, and watching him from the audience helps you understand what the music is doing.
It’s not fair. Pianist, composer, conductor. And young. And he seems to be a nice guy. I hope it’s true that he returns soon, and regularly.
By the way, that Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” was the first conducting assignment at a subscription concert by the Phil’s assistant conductor, Joana Carneiro. She led a very persuasive interpretation, making the symphony more cohesive and less painfully “pathetic” than usual. I lasted through the performance with no trouble. She deserved the audience compliments she received.