Adès visits the waterworks with the BSO

October 11, 2013 at 4:34 pm

By David Wright

Thomas Adès leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his “Polaris” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

The English composer-conductor Thomas Adès put the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a liquid diet Thursday night, leading a program of works inspired by an ocean cave, a star for navigators, and a tragedy at sea, and closing with an unusually fluid rendition of Franck’s Symphony in D minor.

Composers tend to come across as didactic on the podium—“indicate precisely what you mean to say,” as another famous English musician once put it—and Adès did not entirely escape that characterization.  For all his pointed stickwork, however, the orchestra seemed to go its own way in Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), casual about rhythm and (at least from a fairly close-up seat downstairs) swallowing the haunting first theme in waves of bottom-heavy orchestral sound.

It did appear the conductor himself was calling for the exaggerated, almost seasickness-inducing surging and tapering on every phrase, often on individual notes.  And given the evening’s watery theme, it’s possible that the swimmy rhythms and lush textures à la Vaughan Williams were exactly what he wanted. Still, one yearned for a clear, bracing breath of Scottish air once in a while.

A concert with no vocal or instrumental soloist puts the spotlight squarely on the occupant of the podium, especially when one of his own compositions is on the bill.  With this program in particular, one felt as though Adès was in his studio, pulling favorite scores off the shelf and pointing out how they related to each other.

Before getting to his own Polaris, Adès made sure listeners had the sound of Charles Ives in their ears, with that composer’s Orchestral Set No. 2.  Though not as familiar as No. 1, Three Places in New England, this set has many of that one’s virtues of tonal variety, harmonic daring, brashness, and deep emotion.

Ives’s music is famously about testing limits, so one can ask of any performance: Could the tissue of accumulating tune fragments in the first movement, “An Elegy to Our Forefathers,” have been more ephemeral?  The ragtime mash-up of “The Rockstrewn Hills Join the People’s Outdoor Meeting” more raucous?  The desperate hymn-shout of “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Rose” more grief-stricken?

On Thursday night, as on most nights, the answers were yes, yes, and yes.  But at least conductor and orchestra seemed to be on the same page, with a strong commitment to make the music sound.  One imagined the old guy would be satisfied that the players weren’t “mollycoddling” his score, that they were acknowledging it as a classic without playing it like one.

And it would be hard for a present-day American audience not to feel the impact of the last movement, inspired not just by the shocking loss of the passenger liner Lusitania to a German submarine in 1915, but by the 9/11-like effect it had on people in the streets of lower Manhattan, the composer among them.  The sound of the hymn “The Sweet By-and-By” pealing out fortissimo through tearful dissonances was certainly the night’s most unforgettable moment.

It takes a brave composer-conductor to follow such stuff with his own composition, and to be honest Adès’s Polaris came off as a bit cerebral by comparison.  Named for the pole star, the seafarer’s sure reference point, the single star that seems to remain stationary in the heavens while all the other stars wheel around it, the Adès piece is a series of gradual crescendos built by a busy additive process around a tiny motive.

One supposes it is that motive that represents the unwavering star, unless it’s the harmonic stasis of the piece’s background, a feature apparently borrowed from American minimalists such as Reich and Adams.  But without the beguiling clickety-clack of those composers’ rhythms, it is hard for a first-time listener to find much to fasten on to in Polaris, unless it’s the steady accumulation of orchestral colors from the most rumbly low frequencies to the most jangly percussion.

Subtitled “Voyage for Orchestra,” the piece seemed more like a three-day cruise, not so much steaming from port to port as bobbing around on a sparkling, impressionist sea.  The voyage came to a startling end when the piled-up motives swirled into a series of hard, thumping chords punctuated by dramatic silences—not a literal representation of anything, one hoped.

Polaris came with several options, one being to locate its brass players around the hall, which Adès did in part, leaving the player of the prominent tuba part onstage.

The other option is to screen a video by Tal Rosner while the music plays.  The Polaris video, created concurrently with the music and in collaboration with the composer, was not shown Thursday night but will be seen during the Friday night performance.

Franck’s once-ubiquitous symphony received its first BSO performance in nine seasons Thursday night.  Often cited as the answer of the rigorous French intellectual tradition to the ripples and moonbeams of the Impressionists, it seemed a curious choice to top off this program of evanescent emotions and watery metaphors.

But Adès seemed determined to make it fit.  As in the Mendelssohn, a distinctive opening theme (in the cellos this time) seemed muffled and lacking in impact, heralding an interpretation that emphasized the swimmy over the granitic.

Not that Franck didn’t give the conductor plenty to work with.  A skillful and harmonically sophisticated improviser at the organ, the Belgian-French composer practiced modulation in all things.  Despite some striking and persistent motives, the ever-shifting harmonies of his symphony can sometimes make the music seem like all development and no themes, an impression Adès was in no hurry to contradict.

He did seem in a bit of a hurry to get through the piece, however, liberally construing the Allegro non troppo marking of the outer movements and giving a push to the central Allegretto, all of which contributed to a feeling of a river in flood, its rocks of articulation submerged.

It was a relief when passages in canons marshaled the troops in the first movement, and when the buoyant tempo in the Allegretto encouraged well-knit winds and scurrying strings to lift up the long line of Robert Sheena’s English horn solo.

And if some details were blurred in a slightly “troppo” fast finale, conductor and orchestra did seem to hit their stride together, and generated considerable suspense and excitement in the long crescendo leading up to Franck’s startlingly abrupt coda.

Long crescendo?  Abrupt coda?  Persistent motives?  Maybe the composer of Polaris really did see his face in the Franckian mirror.

The performance will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.  The program will be performed without the Franck work, and with the video by Tal Rosner accompanying the Adès work, 8 p.m. Friday.  bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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