Ades America (UK premiere) The London Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Adés, with Janice Watson (soprano) The Tallis Chamber Choir and the Britten-Pears Chamber Choir. 13 June at Aldeburgh Festival (JM)
The artist as prophet of doom
Ades is a fine musician and has a formidable capacity to enjoy life. He has achieved a lot at the age of 29. His successful opera Powder Her Face has brought him fame and notoriety. He won the prestigious Grawemeyer prize. He is music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival. He plays the piano well as we could hear with Faure's Piano Quintet No.2, and as a soloist during the festival. Ades also conducts, mainly his own pieces.
On Tuesday 13 June Ades gave the UK premiere of his latest work: America for soprano and large chorus and orchestra. It was originally commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and premiered on the 11 November 1999 in New York.
America is a short piece of 15 minutes, but uses the enormous forces of a 100 piece choir and an equally large orchestra.
But what for? The surtitle is ominously called 'A Prophecy' - a prophecy of what?
'Our cities will fall, our trees will be scaffolds ... On earth we shall burn, we shall turn to ash...' sings the soprano. And the orchestra bubbles and rumbles in deep clusters of sound and burst out violently.
We are asked to shiver in front of the enormity of this prophecy. But I didn't shiver. I just wondered, what all the ado was about. The orchestration was unclear - too many colours turn into a dirty brown. Ades' gestures were one-dimensional, unbroken. To tell stories with musical means tends to end in ideology or pure subjectivism. Mahler told an endless story of his own suffering, but it was always ironically broken and reflected.
I think these grand 19th century orchestral gestures don't work anymore: they are staid, used up, empty and hollow. The notion of the artist, who takes on the suffering of the world and acts as a redeemer doesn't work anymore, at least not in Ades' case.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra under the safe direction of Adés himself gave a good performance of this problematic piece. Janice Watson, soprano, has a clear, beautiful voice. The combined Tallis Chamber Choir and the Britten-Pears Chamber Choir, for what they had to do, sang perfectly. On a purely practical level America will be difficult to programme for a concert, unless it is combined with other large scale works. Maybe that was the calculation behind the piece.
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