15 illegal minutes with Thomas Ades

By Lawrence A. Johnson

It is almost nine o’clock on the east coast, and three hours earlier in Los Angeles. Thomas Ades has just finished a rehearsal with the L.A. Philharmonic, and the Englishman widely regarded as the most brilliant composer of his generation says that he is nervous.

 About being interviewed?  “No, I’m nervous because I’m afraid of getting busted for speaking on the phone,” he says with a laugh. Ades is referencing California’s recently enacted ban on using cell phones while driving. “I’m talking to you in the car and I shouldn’t be doing it. I have to keep an eye out for cops.”

 Barring any scrapes with L.A.’s finest, Ades (pronounced AH’ des) will make his South Florida debut Saturday night, conducting the New World Symphony in his music and two works of Irish composer Gerald Barry in their American premieres.

 Few composers have had Ades’ kind of immediate success at such an early age.  While still in his teens, he achieved widespread notice for his Five Eliot Landscapes (Opus 1), and soon comparisons with Benjamin Britten were being widely made. Yet Ades has avoided the usual prodigy pitfalls, continuing to chart his own path with striking individuality and self-assurance.

 His style combines a whirlwind facility in writing for orchestra with an allusive Nabokovian love of wordplay. There’s often a kind of wry gamesmanship and double meaning in his titles and music. The extraordinary large-scale Asyla – a symphony in all but name – has been widely hailed as, has, more recently, his opera, The Tempest.

 At times Ades’ style can seem a bit icy and remote in its ironic chill — most notably in his satiric chamber opera, Powder Her Face, which managed to kick up considerable controversy for its detailed — and undeniably clever — musical depiction of oral sex.

 It’s invidious to talk about early and late periods in a composer who is just 37, but Ades’ New World program offers two works that nicely frame his career: These Premises Are Alarmed, written for the opening of the Halle Orchestra’s new Manchester home in 1996, and Tevot, his most recent orchestral work, premiered last year by Ades’ most committed advocate, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

 While his recent works are no less compelling or keenly crafted, they seem less elliptical and more direct in expression, a change the composer has noticed.  “Oh, yes! To me, it really changed a lot,” he says. “I’ve often used the analogy that when I started with These Premises are Alarmed, composing for me was like trying to tune in on a radio. You know, I would try to get the sounds down as accurately as I could from what I heard.

“You can feel it in the music. It comes across sometimes like a radio that’s not completely tuned right. And in my recent music I’m writing it as accurately as possible and so I think the effect is that it sounds a bit fuller.”

“Also, I used to look a little bit to the left and the right of the music and I would often come at the music from the side.  Now I kind of try to attack it head on.”

Tevot, a sprawling single movement of 20 minutes for large orchestra, seems to reflect that renewed, sharply focused concentration.  Commissioned jointly by the Berlin Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, Tevot enjoyed rave notices on both sides of the Atlantic, with The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini calling it an “instantly essential new work.”

The word Tevot (TAY’ vot) comes from the ancient Hebrew for “ark,” though it’s more the concept of the ark that inspired Ades rather than any kind of literal or religious manifestation. “It’s an amazing Hebrew word that means arks, since in this case it’s plural,” he explains. “But also it’s their word for musical bars. So it’s like a vessel; a bar of music is symbolically like an ark that transports a group of people through the flood, to chaos to some sort of safe place where they’re alive and safe.

“And that’s something that’s in the piece as well. I had this idea that the whole world is like an ark and that it carries all the animals and humans and creation through the emptiness of space.”  The composer suddenly laughs a bit self-consciously.  “It’s a very grandiose idea.” 

Ades is an avid enthusiast for the music of Gerald Barry, two of whose works are sharing the program. “He’s very, very Irish in the best sense,” says Ades of Barry. “He could not possibly be a composer from England or any other country in the world. 

“Gerald’s music is wild and free and full of fantasy and imagination.  [The Irish] speak with great freedom and flights of fancy. It’s a very poetic place. And I think Gerald belongs firmly in that world of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, those great Irish writers who invented new ways of language and new ways of describing things.

“Gerald is like that. He writes music that nobody else is writing, in a very strange way.”

For instance, Diner, the shorter of the two Barry works, opens with the rhythm of Offenbach’s famous can-can but with very different notes and harmonic cast. “The effect is really quite wonderful,” says Ades. “It is like James Joyce. It’s like a language that we know but it’s been completely distorted  Someone said it’s like a barn dance devised by a chaos theorist, and that’s a very good description, I think.”

Ades conducted the Paris premiere of Barry’s The Stronger, for solo soprano, and  Barbara Hannigan will reprise the same role on Saturday. The unorthodox opera relates the tale of a woman who gradually realizes her best friend has had an affair with her husband, Barry painting the action with rhapsodic yet pure, precise music.  “It’s very clean and kind of in the tradition of composers like Erik Satie or Morton Feldman,” says Ades.  “Composers who simplify their materials so that things become very clear.”

His New World appearance this Saturday will be his last podium engagement for a year as Ades is taking a sabbatical for composing. “I find I need some proper time at home to let my composing brains catch up with my schedule.”

For a composer whose music can seem almost daunting at times in its facility and brilliance, Ades does not take himself that seriously and is a witty and self-effacing conversationalist. Asked about his increasing high-level podium engagements, he has no pretensions.

“I’ve never had any conducting lessons, so I’ve always felt that I was like an autodidact, learning on the job.” He laughs. “I only hope that I’m improving.”

 Thomas Ades conducts the New World Symphony 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. The program will include Ades’ Tevot and These Premises Are Alarmed and the American premieres of Gerald Barry’s Diner and The Stronger, with soprano Barbara Hannigan. $15. www.nws.edu; 800-597-3331; 305-673-3331.

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3 Responses to “15 illegal minutes with Thomas Ades”

  1. Posted Nov 21, 2008 at 7:06 am by Richard Rodney Bennett

    Good Lord. Has Ades taken leave of his senses already? I doubt very much that an Englishman would have already succombed to the pop, pop, pop onomatopoeic gibberish of America. Busted, indeed, by the cops. This sounds more like a Chicagoan voice. Surely, Johnson is putting words in his mouth? By Jove, I am jolly certain that he would have been more likely to say that the Bow Street Runners had it in for him.
    As for waxing so lyrically about Irish composers and likening Barry’s work to Joyce: Joyce more broke wind than new ground by being the first author to discuss things scatological. Seems Ades with his themes is equally in the gutter, but perhaps looking at the stars.

  2. Posted Nov 21, 2008 at 10:51 am by Richard G

    Let’s hope that he was driving on the right side of the road.

  3. Posted Nov 21, 2008 at 11:54 am by Steven

    I must disagree with Sir Richard. Adès’s music, like Joyce’s writing, embraces a universe of experience; it combines boundless invention with stunning technical acumen. ‘Tevot’ is remarkable…Tom goes from strength to strength.

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