The English composer and conductor Thomas Adès has officially concluded his term as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic partner. Fortunately, while we wonder who’s next, Adès and his music have nonetheless maintained a presence on the BSO’s subscription season. He conducts one full program (this week), and next month, Andris Nelsons will lead the BSO with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter in the American premiere of “Air,” his new work for violin and orchestra.
Adès’s stints on the BSO podium are typically bracing, invigorating affairs for mind and ear, but this week’s program is especially intense, even by his own standards. In the first half he has placed Stravinsky’s “Perséphone,” a challenging three-part melodrama last performed by the BSO two decades ago; and the second half is jammed to overflowing with music from Adès’s own massive, new work, “Dante.”
Stravinsky was drawn to Greek myth multiple times in his career and the well-known story of Persephone, adapted and “revised” in the work’s text by André Gide, spurred his imagination to considerable heights. On Thursday night, Adès led an incisive, supplely drawn performance; Edgaras Montvidas sang with poise and power in the solo tenor role of the priest Eumolpus; and Danielle de Niese was duly dramatic as the reciter. Joining them with a finely textured performance was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, its ranks augmented by the notably pure-voiced boys of Saint Paul’s Choir School.
But it was the “Dante”-filled second half of the evening that proved the more memorable. The source was Adès’s new, evening-length ballet score, written in 2019-21 and based on “The Divine Comedy.” Given the time available this week, Adès was able to present a Suite of music from the first part, “Inferno,” and the entirety of the third part, “Paradiso.” (The second part, “Purgatorio,” was not played.)
Judging from the portions presented Thursday night, “Dante” is a major new work, a tour de force in which, as the music tracks Dante’s journey from hell to paradise, the full breadth of Adès’s technical mastery has been put to the service of creating a vast world of imaginative fantasy. The inspiration that Adès, in his own telling, draws from Liszt is palpable, but, as is his way within his own signature style, tradition is just one mask of many that he dons. The past is politely “revered” one moment, and then irreverently smeared or skewered in the next. Time and again the music romps across scenes and centuries with a fluidity, boldness, and kinetic force that is his alone.
Thursday’s performance made one eager to encounter the work in its entirety, something that will in fact be possible next month when it’s released in a new Nonesuch recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But there is also no substitute for the live experience of hearing the music brought to life by its own creator. Adès conducted with large but controlled gestures, drawing at times real heat and vehemence from the Boston Symphony and forceful singing from the sopranos and altos of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. All told, the night was a clear highlight of a season now moving swiftly toward its final weeks.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Thomas Adès, conductor
At: Symphony Hall, March 23 (repeats March 25)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.