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Monday, March 16, 2015

Concert Review: Last Stop: Endsville

Thomas Adès conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Carry a big stick: Thomas Adès conducts Totentanz.
Photo from the premiere of Totentanz at the Proms, from the Royal Albert Hall.

Thomas Adès is at the front rank of today's contemporary composers, thanks to bad-boy operas like Powder Her Face and The Tempest. On Thursday night, before a packed house that included Icelandic singer Björk and Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb, Mr. Adès led the New York Philharmonic for the first time, conducting the New York premiere of his cantata Totentanz with early compositions by  Beethoven and Berlioz.

The Beethoven symphonies are an excellent measure by which to judge a conductor's baton skills. Mr. Adès chose a robust approach to the Symphony No. 1, conducting the slow opening and following Allegro with a burly energy that emphasized the Promethean aspects of the score. The strings and horns of the Philharmonic responded with a full and rounded tone, with the music sounding weighty but not ponderous.

This light-and-heavy approach served Mr. Adès well in the central movements. The soft, singing Andante, with its suggestion of polyphony built to a warm, rounded climax. The little Menuetto had a burst of energy from the podium and an enthusiastic response from the players. And the finale, with its joyful, pell-mell Rondo had orchestra and conductor working in close harmony in a performance that sounded fresh and spontaneous.

Freshness and spontaneity are the chief virtues of Berlioz' Overture to Les Franc-juges, the sole surviving element from the composer's failed first opera. Here, Mr. Adès relished Berlioz' unconventional, muscular orchestration, played with enthusiasm and at certain moments, even abandon by the Philharmonic musicians. This robust performance brimmed with energy and life, with Berlioz' massive, surging climaxes ringing out in the brass.

The second half of the program was Mr. Adès' Totentanz. His longest orchestral composition to date. this piece is inspired by medieval paintings that depict the figure of the Grim Reaper dancing with a procession of people, introduced in descending order of rank. The piece featured baritone Mark Stone in the role of Death (a substitute for the ill Simon Keenlyside) and mezzo Christianne Stotjin singing the parts of a Pope, a Cardinal, a King and various descending ranks down to a Peasant, a Lady and an innocent Child.

Mr. Adès wrote this piece for a massive orchestra, with a second contrabassoon and a vast array of percussion instruments (bamboo canes, wood blocks, whips, policeman's whistle, anvils, all manner of gongs) adding to the clamour. The opening passages deployed this percussion against dissonant chords and tone clusters in the brass, with a carpet of slithering strings underneath adding to the discord. Ms. Stotjin and Mr. Stone often struggled in the heavy surf of orchestration, at times having to sing with great force just to be heard.

Ever the musical anarchist, Mr. Adès fired his full orchestral artillery at the highest ranks, knocking off the Pope, the Cardinal, and the King in quick blasts of brass with skeletal percussion driving home the point. The Monk was met with slow, stately textures in the orchestra evoking medieval plainchant. The Knight was accompanied by clanking anvils and metal sheets indicating the sound of his armor attempting to dance with Death.

As Death moved down the line, the textures thankfully quieted and thinned, becoming transparent and even serene for the last dances of the Lady and the Child. These final passages were exquisite and even subtle, stilling the noisy percussion section and allowing strings, winds and singers to tell the tale. The writing for the child was touching and profound, evoking the Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler without paying explicit musical homage. The work ended in quietude, with Mr. Stone obsessively chanting "Tanzen! Tanzen!" as the orchestra finally reared to a pianissimo stop.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.