Friday, July 26, 2013

Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto "Concentric Paths"

Continuing my series of program notes: 
Thomas Adès (born 1971)
Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’

I.                    Rings
II.                 Paths
III.               Rounds

 Thomas Adès is still young enough to attract the sort of praise lavished by critics on rising stars. Critics praise his conceptual ambition, the energy of his ideas, his mastery of technical intricacy...
But Adès is now an established artist. The ‘Promising New Voice of British Music’ has reached his 40s and his music has the assurance of a long-burning beacon rather than a flash in the sky. ‘Not unlike the Prospero so memorably characterized in his Tempest opera,’ says writer Thomas May, ‘Adès has learned to tame the maelstrom of energies churning through his earlier scores; at the same time, his work of recent years seems to enrich the composer’s unassailable gifts for colour, lyricism, and jump-cutting excitement with a more sustained, humane coherence.’
Adès is best-known for works such as 1997’s Asyla, the Grawemeyer Award-winning work programmed by Sir Simon Rattle, in a sign of his high estimation of Adès’ talent, as part of Rattle’s final concert as Music Director with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and his first concert as Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Adès’ two operas have also attracted great attention. Powder Her Face is an irreverent satire drawn from tabloid stories that chronicled the fall from grace of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, the centre of a scandalous divorce trial in 1963. Powder Her Face was followed up with a Covent Garden commission, Adès’ sensational adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose Ariel is echoed in the high-pitched violin part of this concerto. One of the great pleasures of listening to Adès’ music (even in the ‘scintillating ferocity’ of his early music) is the feeling of tradition behind it. The echoing-through of older concertos gives this work a great deal of its poignancy. The opposing tug of freedom also generates a great deal of the power of Adès’ music.
‘Concentric Paths’ was a joint commission of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Berliner Festspiele and was premiered in September 2005 at the Berliner Festpiele and BBC Proms by Andrew Marwood and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of the composer.
It is a leaner and more austere work than many of Adès’ earlier pieces. As with other Adès works, its brief duration possesses ‘a high density of musical thought per square inch’ and requires intense concentration on the part of the soloist.
In three movements, the work’s traditional references are altered by Adès when he throws the emotional weight on the middle movement ‘Paths’, more than twice the length of the outer movements. Why is the work subtitled ‘Concentric Paths’? As Adès points out, each of the movements proceeds according to its own circular design.
‘Rings’, the first movement begins with pinched high notes, and revolves around aerial oscillations and gliding instrumental lines. The stratospherically high violin part will remain characteristic of the work throughout its shimmering length but may also hark back to Ariel’s part in The Tempest.
Adès describes the second movement, ‘Paths’, as involving ‘two large, and very many small, independent cycles, which overlap and clash, sometimes violently, in their motion towards resolution.’ The intensity of the movement is signalled at the outset by the intermittent outbursts of compressed (simultaneous) solo violin and brass timbres. There is a sense of huge movement and weight. Thomas May speaks memorably of the movement’s ‘seismic, grinding, relentless energy.’ Critics have noted the strain of lyricism which has come through in recent Adès’ works and this movement ends in virtual song.
Songlike lyricism appears also in the final movement, not long after the lumbering opening. As the first movement came to a sudden, though appropriate end (we sense the closing of the circles), so too does this concerto.
Mention has been made of the way Adès’ music reflects tradition. Given that the lyrical modernism of this work may at times remind the listener of Berg, Ligeti, or even, perhaps, Prokofiev, this work belongs comfortably in the pantheon of great modern concertos.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2012

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013 
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013

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