The British composer Thomas Adès is back on the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium this week, leading his own music, yes, but also giving the fall schedule a healthy shot of curatorial imagination. The works on an Adès-designed program don’t stand staring at the floor like proverbial strangers in an elevator – they mingle with each other, spark connections, themes, ideas, arguments.
The first half of Thursday night’s concert was an enthralling case in point, opening with the Hebrides Overture. Mendelssohn created this teeming orchestral seascape after a visit to the Hebrides Islands off the Scottish coast and on Thursday night, Adès and the orchestra gave it a wonderfully atmospheric performance.
On the far end of the first half came Adès’s own “Polaris” from 2010, subtitled a “Voyage for Orchestra.” If sailors of Mendelssohn’s day turned to the night sky for navigation, Adès fastens on the North Star — and magnetic north — as a metaphor for the elemental push and pull, the fields of attraction and repellence, that one musical note can exert against another. His piece builds up from a simple cycling pattern of notes in the piano that keeps evolving, suggesting not a loop but a massive spiral. The composer’s approach to the orchestra is as always brilliantly prismatic and here the music’s magnetic fields seem to expand, break apart, rearrange, and thrillingly clash.
On Thursday night the composer emphasized this music’s vaulted expansiveness by scattering four delegations of brass into the balconies, two among them in the distant back corners, such that the sound unfurled over the length of Symphony Hall like a canopy. The clashes grow more intense as the piece develops, the textures thicker, and the work ends at a potent high boil. (Interestingly, Adès conceived “Polaris” to stand on its own or to be presented with an accompanying video by the artist Tal Rosner. In a somewhat perplexing call, the BSO will screen the video, but at one of three performances this week – on Friday.)
Between these two works of voyage on the first half, Adès led the BSO’s first ever performance of Ives’s Orchestral Set No. 2. The play of musical layering and shifting densities in this work made it seem like the perfect connecting tissue. But it was Adès’s striking feel for the physicality of this music, its expressive topography by turns craggy and majestic that made this an exhilarating performance. The night ended with Franck’s Symphony in D minor, in an alert and turbulent reading. With Adès, there is no autopilot.