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Thomas Ades, Two Ways

October 3, 2011

I heard two contrasting Thomas Ades pieces over the weekend, demonstrating the composer's amazing emotional and sonic range.

As part of a program that included, incongruously to my mind, Mozart's Symphony No 35 and Stravinsky's Petrushka Suite, The San Francisco Symphony gave a performance of Ades' Polaris. The piece was created in collaboration with video artist Tal Rosner and received its world premiere at the New World Symphony's new concert hall in Miami earlier this year.

That was on Friday night. On Sunday, I attended the Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan's recital as part of the Music@Menlo winter concert series. Barnatan named his recital "Darknesse Visible" after an Ades piano work he performed in the first half of the concert. Barnatan's inspired programming choices, which explored the shadowy side of life from the bittersweet to the diabolical, included Debussy's Suite Bergamesque, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, a Fantasy on Peter Grimes arranged by Ronald Stevenson after Britten's opera and Schubert's Sonata in A Major, D. 959.

While Polaris suggests the macro forces of nature at work -- the effect of the moon and stars on the movement of the Earth -- Darknesse Visible conveys a sense of nature in microcosm: Listening to this intense, spectrally beautiful piece has the same effect as staring at a single blade of grass until its contours become ingrained on the insides of your eyelids.

I have to admit that the video component of the presentation left me cold. Rosner's video montage for Polaris is distracting. With its windswept, romantic shots of two women floating around on a rugged shoreline in swirling skirts and staring into middle distance on rocky promontories, it reminds one of an ad campaign for a middle-of-the-road high street fashion brand like Banana Republic or Zara. But the orchestra, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, still managed to put the glory of Ades' stereophonic writing across, bathing us in undulating waves of sound through the use of rolling canons of notes, glittering percussion and warm brass. The cosmos-encompassing feel of the work stems in part from the fact that the brass players are placed away from the main body of the orchestra. In this past weekend's performances at Davies Symphony Hall, the musicians stood at broad intervals in the gallery behind the stage.

I will not forget Barnatan's performance of "Darknesse Visible" (or indeed his entire recital, which brilliantly fused a broad atmospheric palette with technical mastery) for a long time. Although the pianist brought passion and precision to every piece he played, the standout piece in his program for me was the Ades work. Barnatan plays with an introverted style. He seems to be engaging in an intimate conversation with the keyboard. In "Darknesse Visible," this attitude comes to the fore. The pianist bends close to the keys, striking each one like it's a bell. The sound shimmers. based on a John Dowland song which the composer has fractured and dispersed into pieces that extend from one end of the piano to the other, the music feels at once hollow and very full. One can't but help entering into a deep state of meditation while listening to it. I found my gaze focusing on the inside of the piano lid. It was highly polished so the scarlet, silver, ebony and gold parts of the inside of the instrument -- an area that is often hidden when the piano isn't being used in performance -- glimmered against the underside of the lid. The sight was as visual a representation of "darkness made visible" as the haunting sounds coming from the stage.


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