More Strength Than Mystery—the Musical Spaces of Adès and Sibelius

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Thomas Adès leads the BSO in the suite to his opera, Powder Her Face, 7.22.18. Photo Hilary Scott.
Thomas Adès leads the BSO in the suite to his opera, Powder Her Face, 7.22.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

Thomas Adès, Suite from Powder Her Face (1995-2017)
Jean Sibelius, Violin Concerto in d, op. 47
Sibelius, Symphony no. 5 in E-flat, op. 82

Boston Symphony conducted by Thomas Adès
Christian Tetzlaff, violin soloist

July 22, 2018

Thomas Adès’ affinity for the music of Sibelius was manifest last summer when he led the TMC Orchestra in a program that included the Symphony no. 7.  In my review of that performance, I called attention to the relationship between mystery and space that is evident in this music and is also a factor in Adès’s own works.  These parameters were present in the current program but not as prominently: mystery was eclipsed by performances that were energetic even to the point of aggressiveness.  This might have been a function of the need to project into the cavernous reaches of the shed; both Adès and Tetzlaff, the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, favored large gestures, emotional intensity, and the upper end of the dynamic spectrum.  The results were musically clear and impressive, appropriate for Adès’s own music but sometimes less so for Sibelius.

Powder Her Face is the opera that catapulted Adès to early fame at the age of 24, and it quickly established itself in the repertory, to be followed by two others, most recently The Exterminating Angel which was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera last fall.  Adès is a resourceful musical dramatist and orchestrator who commands a vast range of instrumental colors.  His style is more maximalist than minimalist, leavening complex textures and rhythms with a sense of humor that enjoys pulling the rug from under the expectations of listeners.  The score to this opera is stuffed with stylistic references and quotations. The “Her” of the title refers to Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, an aging and pathetic has-been of an aristocratic woman who is living out her later years in British hotels, striving to preserve a fantasy of a Gilded Age, until the depletion of her fortune in 1990 and her eviction from the Grosvenor Hotel.

The overture immediately evokes the popular music of that era through scraps of characteristic melody reminiscent of tango, waltz, Charleston, and blues. This reminded me of John Harbison’s use of popular music in “The Great Gatsby,” but where Harbison attempted verisimilitude, Adès revels in fractured and caricatured references with exaggerated glissandi, brass outburst, dance rhythms fragmented and gone awry, and gnomic or Ivesian interjections of seemingly unrelated material.  Perhaps parallel to the protagonist’s emotions, all this teeters on the edge of chaos, but keeps getting pulled back into the borderlands of familiar experience, only to disintegrate in a new way.  Not all is savage parody; the attitude of the music can be simultaneously ironic and sympathetic.  There are touching passages of straightforward lyricism, particularly in clarinet solo of the fifth section, “Ode.”  The most ingenious orchestral color is heard in “Waltz,” with its prominent xylophone, harp and pizzicato string texture evoking (to quote the program book) “delicate clockwork” somehow associated with waitresses who are imagining themselves as wealthy patrons. 

What role do space and mystery play?  The fragmented surface of the orchestral texture relies on space to achieve clarity; Adès keeps the disparate layers of sound clearly audible by avoiding colors and sonorities that would obscure each other.  There is a continual activation of multiple registers, including the extremes of bass tuba or piccolo, but the music never feels over-stuffed, despite its often hyperactive character.  Multiple activity is accorded a wide sound-stage, and there are empty spaces to keep them separated, resulting in an almost psychedelic clarity.  Mystery enters with the question of what these musical fragments and jagged edges have to do with each other, and what do they contribute to the narrative?  The texture keeps trying to pull itself apart, as if reality is clawing away the shreds of illusion that the protagonist clings to.  It is not surprising that Adès was later to turn to the film “The Exterminating Angel” for an operatic subject that returns to similar dramatic tensions.

Mystery is in the foreground at the beginning of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, when a whispering and static mist of tremolo strings sets up a featureless backdrop against which the solo violin drifts with simple but tonally ambiguous phrases, as if from a half-remembered folk song.  In many performances, the enigmatic quality of this suggests music approaching us from a distance; we are separated from it just as the violin and orchestra are separated from each other.  Much of the first movement can be ‘read’ as ways in which soloist and orchestra attempt to find each other, activate each other, engage in dialogue.  The structure is notable for the dominating position of the lengthy cadenza before the recapitulation; the violin is abandoned by the orchestra to work out the struggle on its own.  There are two short but ecstatic moments when orchestra and soloist succeed in achieving union, only to pull apart back into their separate worlds. 

Other violinists emphasize the oscillation between the ethereal and the impassioned qualities of the solo part; Tetzlaff had a different take (as he often does).  His first note was already fully present and engaged as the protagonist asserted itself against the orchestral backdrop.  This is actually the traditional stance of the heroic romantic concerto (think Brahms or Tchaikovsky), but as an interpretive choice it deprived this work of some of its unique character.  The playing was faultless and impressive, but I felt it lacked a nuanced response to the idiosyncratic qualities of this work, which is almost devoid of romantic cliché.  The more consistently lyrical second movement fared best under this treatment, but the last movement was taken at such a rapid clip that, given the slightly blurred acoustics of the shed, much articulatory detail was lost.  Tovey called the third movement “a polonaise for polar bears” but at this tempo, the heavy anapests in the low strings took on a baleful aspect: instead of dancing the bears were charging into battle.  The highly energized reading of the solo part was seconded by the sweeping motions of the conductor which urged the orchestra forward with aggressive energy, overriding the lilt of the dance.

Similar qualities characterized the performance of Symphony no. 5, a work in which Sibelius successfully balanced individuality of style and structure with clarity of message and powerful audience appeal.  It is also technically very difficult for the orchestra; it is one of the few pieces that the TMC Orchestra had to struggle with in their performance of it two years ago.  The Boston Symphony has a strong history with this work, having performed and recorded it with Sibelius expert Colin Davis in the early ‘70’s, and with subsequent Tanglewood performances under Salonen (his BSO debut), Vänska, Andrew Davis, John Storgårds, and now Adès.  This has provided audiences with a spectrum of valid and convincing interpretive approaches.  Each performance and recording I have heard offers its own perspective of this multi-faceted work.  Adès’s approach was large-scale (in keeping with his energetic and sweeping style of conducting):  the dynamic level was high but the rhythmic structures were always clearly delineated, with virtuosic playing from all sections.  But there were times when the unleashed brasses overshadowed the strings, to the detriment of the unfolding musical thought. 

In the first movement, following a proclamatory introduction, the strings become the motor that drives and unites disparate wind and brass fragments which slowly coalesce to form the thrilling final drive of the piece; their music should not be treated as secondary.  Even when they serve as background to wind and brass statements, they should be clearly audible (which was not always the case).  This is most obviously needed in the final bars, where the rising arpeggios build inexorably upon one another under the sustained brass calls, approaching and arriving at the final moment as if pre-ordained; and indeed, the amount of thought and revision that Sibelius invested in this movement seems to have aimed at exactly this sense of cumulative arrival, one of the most exciting conclusions in the symphonic literature, and only outdone by the ending of the third movement of this same symphony.

The remaining movements achieved better balances. The vigor of Adès’s approach served to impart a rugged strength to the final movement that in this performance led logically and powerfully to its final moments.  At its start, a fresh breeze blowing in from the south side of the Shed accompanied the whispering, scurrying strings; nature was making its presence felt, even ruffling a page of the conductor’s score.  Having been set in motion (Sibelius speaks of being inspired by the sight of a flight of swans), the widely swinging theme (Thor’s hammer, or heavenly bells, or…) is developed in contrapuntal layers and including an augmentation that emerged with extra clarity in this performance.  The penultimate section piles up painful, grinding dissonances that grow organically out of the “folk-like” song of the woodwinds in confrontation with the swinging theme, as if to say that the clear sailing propelling much of this movement must subsume human opposition and tragedy before it can achieve a truly transcendent destination.  The process, as revealed in this rendition, was nothing less than thrilling. 

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