Adès’ spiky, exuberant Piano Concerto receives a brilliant world premiere from Gerstein, BSO

March 8, 2019 at 11:57 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

KIrill Gerstein performed the world premiere of Thomas Adès' Concerto for Piano with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Kirill Gerstein performed the world premiere of Thomas Adès’ Concerto for Piano with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Thomas Adès’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is a testament to the fruitful musical relationship he shares with pianist Kirill Gerstein. And when the English composer conducted the concerto’s world premiere with Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, the resulting music seemed a true conversation among friends.

Commissioned by the BSO to culminate Adès’ three-year artistic partnership with the ensemble, the concerto walks the wire between the avant-garde and tradition. Throughout its thirty-minute span, the composer paints a bright sonic picture through thorny dissonances and wild chromatic diversions. Its melodies unfold through quick-changing meters to form asymmetric shapes, with orchestral tuttis never seeming to fall on the beat.

For the pianist, the work is a true showpiece. The first of its three movements begins fervently as the piano melody churns and coils itself into tight harmonic knots. The second theme brings sweeping contrasts, and cadenzas offer moments of Dionysian exuberance.

The nocturnal second movement unspools from dark chords in the low brass and woodwinds. Here, the piano part sits easily under the fingers, the line slipping in and out of closely related keys on its journey from high to low registers.

The finale roils as Adès’ twisting and mercurial phrases come to rest on harmonies that retain an ear-stinging dissonance. Every bar is a feast for the ears, and Adès injects his music with humorous glissandos, brassy blasts, and percussive hits that coalesce into an abstracted bebop riff. The ear is constantly drawn to the delightfully weird combinations of harmony, texture, and rhythm.

But at its heart, this stirring and complex score conveys an almost romantic sense of tension and release— the demanding solo writing and long-coming resolve recall Rachmaninoff’s much lusher concertos. The effect is mesmerizing, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra stands as Adès’ greatest achievement to date.

With his sparkling technique and probing musicianship, Gerstein performed Adès’ music with aplomb, tossing off the blazing runs and wide leaps with firm direction and momentum. His delicate tone in the second movement brought brief but tender moments of repose.

On the podium, Adès was a bold presence, highlighting each attack and shift in instrumental color with brisk gestures, occasional circular motions of the arm, and hammer-like downbeats. The orchestra responded to his lead with fire and precision, and the coda was greeted with rapturous applause, both for the composition and its performance.

Adès’ Technicolor approach also mined the subtleties from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, which filled the second half of the program.

This was a reading in which to revel. The opening fanfares carried palpable weight, the strings in the first theme beamed, and solo bassoon seemed to call out from a distance. Yet Adès also kept an eye to the big picture, building each passage in the development section into powerful statements. He opened the throttle for a robust, even visceral finale.

But the most arresting aspects of this performance came in the middle movements. With quiet, chamber-like intimacy, John Ferrillo’s oboe solo flowed seamlessly into the string theme, which Adès shaped with gentle dynamics and rubato. The pizzicato phrases of the Scherzo were a buoyant complement to the Trio’s bright-toned winds, which took on the verve of a military band.

In Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which opened the concert, Adès found an appropriate demonic vigor by focusing on every nuance of phrase, color, and texture.

Less a waltz than fiendish march, Thursday’s reading featured the orchestra’s principals in spotlit musical moments. Cellist Blaise Déjardin lofted a sunlit melody in the short work’s middle section. Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova answered with a silvery line of her own before the music drove towards its vibrant conclusion, which Adès drew out for dramatic effect.

With his position with the BSO being extended to the 2020-21 season, Boston audiences can look forward to more programs led by this talented and exciting composer-conductor. Let’s hope he leads more premieres of his own music with the orchestra as well.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Adès’ spiky, exuberant Piano Concerto receives a brilliant world premiere from Gerstein, BSO”

  1. Posted Mar 08, 2019 at 1:09 pm by Sarah and Richard Tung

    We were there. Wholeheartedly agree with review. We were on the edge of our seats throughout all three pieces. We had the privilege of hearing Maestro in Amsterdam last spring and were eagerly anticipating last night. All expectations blown out of the water! Still walking on air the day after.

    Huge congrats to Maestro and Mr. Kirill and the entire orchestra for a spectacularly inspiring evening.

  2. Posted Mar 11, 2019 at 3:12 pm by David Bean

    I heard the concert on the radio. I thought the concerto was very interesting but, like so much contemporary music, it did not leave me humming tunes and tapping my toe. Though not mentioned in the review here, has anyone heard the Tchaikovsky finale taken at a speed even approaching Ades’ tempo?

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