The stick technique may not be the most virtuosic, or the podium movements the most entrancingly balletic. But when a gifted composer picks up the baton and steps in front of an orchestra, be prepared for fascinating results. The reasons are obvious: Composers approach great scores of the past from inside the guild, as co-creators likely to bring out details in the music that other interpreters might pass right by. And of course, when a conductor is leading his own music, one is given an insider’s tour without parallel.
It’s no wonder then that two of the most ear-opening Boston Symphony Orchestra programs in recent memory were led by two composers: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Thomas Adès.
Adès, who at just 41 is easily Britain’s most prominent composer, visited Symphony Hall last year with his own bewitching Violin Concerto and music from his opera, “The Tempest,” leading them alongside probing accounts of “Tempest”-themed works by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. The alertness and vitality of the orchestra’s response to his presence, and to his music, was self-evident. Now Adès has been invited back
“I didn’t think twice [about saying yes] because it was just so special last time I was there,” the composer said recently by phone from Los Angeles, where he was lying low before a busy fall that will include the high-profile staging of his “Tempest” at the Metropolitan Opera, in a recently designed production by Canadian director Robert Lepage.
In Boston, the centerpiece of Adès’s program will be his own strikingly vivid piano concerto, “In Seven Days,” with the pianist Kirill Gerstein, in his BSO debut, performing the work alongside Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. On both ends of this piano pairing will be music of Sibelius: the chillingly beautiful tone poem “Luonnotar,” with Dawn Upshaw as soprano soloist, and the Sixth Symphony. Taken as a whole, and based on the evidence of Adès’s previous visit, it promises to be one of the most artistically rewarding programs of the new BSO season.
As one might suspect from the title, “In Seven Days” is a creation-themed work, a piano concerto depicting the narrative of Genesis. Accompanying video projections were developed by the Israeli video artist Tal Rosner, though the music was also conceived to stand on its own, as will likely be the case when it’s performed in Symphony Hall. On the background of the piece, Adès says, “I went to one of the only schools in London without any religious instruction, so in some ways I come to [Genesis] as a literary text more than anything else. What struck me was that when these words were first put down, they were seen as ‘science’—I’m sure people thought they were facts. From an artistic point of view, that was very exciting to me, that there was this huge imaginative act that was also thought to be actual truth.”
Adès said he was also drawn to the famously cryptic Hebrew phrase “tohu va vohu” – sometimes translated as “without form and void” — the notion that raw matter preceded form, or as Adès put it, “that everything that’s going to be in the world is already there, it’s just chopped up and not connected yet.” The appeal of the sculptural metaphor to any composer is not difficult to surmise: Music need not be invented ex nihilo if it can be chiseled from all the chaotic sound that already fills the world.
Alongside “In Seven Days,” Adès will build out his program through both musical and thematic links. In the former category comes Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a work he says “for me has the kind of freshness of a dawn, like Beethoven’s First Symphony.” Then there is more creation music with “Luonnotar,” Sibelius’s setting of a Finnish creation myth, taken from the Kalevala epic, describing a goddess-like figure who descends from the skies and, through a turn of events involving a duck and its eggs, helps give birth to the world out of the sea.
Finally, Adès says, he couldn’t resist closing with the Sibelius Sixth, “my favorite, because it has this ultimate balance between classical forms and this amazing disintegration, as if the music is hovering on the edge of an infinity pool, just before the water falls over.” Sibelius’s music, more broadly for Adès, has long been a kind of touchstone. “He’s very self-revealing, not afraid to show his faults and fears at the same times as his mastery,” Adès says. “You can really feel him struggling with failure a lot, and yet he never takes the safe option. For another composer, that makes him a good companion.”