The Boston Symphony Orchestra has initiated a fruitful partnership with British composer Thomas Adès. Having recently conducted his third set of subscription concerts, he joined the Boston Symphony Chamber Players on Sunday for a concert that, like his orchestra programs, deftly mixed entries from Adès’s catalog with other works. Bookending Sunday’s concert were the relatively early “Sonata da caccia” for oboe, horn, and harpsichord (1993), and the more recent Piano Quintet (2000). Between them were offerings of Debussy and Ravel.
The two Adès works illustrated how a composer can deploy historical models in works that sound entirely distinct from one another. The “Sonata da caccia” takes its instrumentation from Debussy, who planned but never wrote a sonata for these unusual forces. But its syntax looks further back — to Couperin, whose graceful, agile works are a continuing source of inspiration for the composer. Adès ingeniously deploys Baroque elements — imitation, florid accompaniment, stately rhythms — in a way that sets up the audience’s expectations, which his pungent harmonies and off-kilter rhythms then knock askew. The appropriation was both mischievous and deeply respectful.
The Piano Quintet takes its structural bearing from the sonata form of the classical era. On that skeleton, though, is built a piece of wild imagination. It’s a Janus-faced work: You hear Adès develop his material in a way reminiscent of how Haydn or Beethoven might have, but the language is dense and forward-looking — thick with dissonances and maze-like rhythmic complexities. The piano and string quartet act as magnetic poles, and the energy they generate leads to an eruptive, dissonant climax. It ends, improbably, with a C major chord.
During the quintet, Adès could be seen beating time and cueing the four string players, whenever he had a hand (or two) free. Whether this was out of conductorly habit or a necessary intervention to keep the performance together is difficult to say in an intricate piece. What is not open to dispute is the tremendous impact the piece registers.
Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Thomas Adès, piano and harpsichord
Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp made for a cool, elegant interlude amid Adès’s provocations. The Sonata’s smoothly melodic surface conceals a surprisingly free flow of ideas unique in Debussy’s chamber output. Preceding the quintet was Ravel’s “Chansons madécasses” for voice, flute, cello, and piano, based on poems that may or may not have originated in Madagascar.
The cycle is most famous for the second of its three songs, a howl of protest against imperialism. (“Beware of the white men, dwellers on the shore.”) That song’s opening was one of the most terrifying things I have ever heard. Baritone John Brancy was eminently deserving of the solo bow he received. Any of the other performers would have been as well — especially Adès, one of the most talented musicians in our midst.