Tucked away in a rehearsal studio beneath Symphony Hall, Thomas Adès bent fiercely over a concert grand piano, his attention darting between the instrument’s keys and members of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.
Just one day into his inaugural visit as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new “artistic partner” — the BSO’s first-ever such arrangement — the acclaimed British composer, conductor, and pianist was leading the players through a daunting piece of chamber music drawn from his opera “The Tempest.” More rehearsals were planned for later that day. There would be meetings to attend, scores of musicians to meet, and a series of concerts to perform.
But for now, Adès, 45, was intent on coaxing the quartet to move swiftly through one of the work’s more harrowing sections. “We’re still a little bit slow,” he prodded, launching again into the tangle of notes.
“It’s like hurtling through a wormhole,” marveled Haldan Martinson, the BSO’s principal second violin, after the second pass. “It doesn’t take long, but it’s terrifying. Then you’re out on some beach somewhere.”
Adès’s penchant for creating dense aural landscapes that are at once historically sophisticated, darkly themed, and viscerally moving has made him one of most sought-after composers working today. Critics routinely admire his work as a pianist and conductor, but they reserve their highest praise for his compositions, which are often described in genre-shaking terms. The Los Angeles Times hailed his latest opera, “The Exterminating Angel,” as “the most eagerly anticipated opera of the year — and arguably of the decade.” Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper called it “a turning point for Adès and, it felt, for opera itself.”
Given Adès’s breadth, BSO managing director Mark Volpe said the orchestra wanted to offer him a “multi-dimensional” partnership beyond the sort of traditional composer residencies offered by many symphonies today.
“They always talk about triple threats,” said Volpe. “This guy’s a quadruple threat: He’s one of the great composers of any generation. He’s a conductor we’re proud to have on our podium. He’s a terrific pianist, and he’s a teacher. We wanted to get him intrigued, not just by having his music played here, but also being able to curate and conduct his programs here and at Tanglewood.”
For Adès, the three-year partnership offers something he said that at times can be elusive: the chance to build something substantial.
“If you’re not attached, at one’s bleakest moments, it can start to feel like you make a little sandcastle,” said Adès, who served as artistic director of England’s Aldeburgh Festival from 1999 to 2008. “A project happens, and it’s gone the next week. We’ve all gone on. I know it’s not like that, but it can feel that way.”
As BSO artistic partner, Adès will direct the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood in 2018 and 2019. He’s scheduled to perform or conduct in three programs there this July and will work with Tanglewood Music Center composition fellows and coach TMC chamber music ensembles as well. The BSO has also commissioned him to write a major piano concerto that will premiere during the 2018-19 season.
This is in addition to the concerts he gave Oct. 28 and 30 and performances scheduled for Nov. 3-5 including “Totentanz,” his magisterial work for mezzo-soprano and baritone.
Inspired by a 15th-century frieze depicting the dance of death through the ranks of humanity, “Totentanz” calls upon a dense riot of instruments — bamboo canes, ratchets, whips, and a rare, contrabassoon-like instrument known as a contraforte — to create its macabre soundscape. While the baritone sings the role of death, the mezzo-soprano performs 15 roles, everyone from the pope all the way down to an infant.
“When you get to the end and death is singing to the baby, it should feel like this is all of us,” Adès said during a wide-ranging conversation. “Because we’ve all been babies — even the pope.”
If Adès’s reputation is titanic (“How many times does what the composer wrote come alive right next to you!” crowed one thrilled clarinetist), the composer seemed eager to ingratiate himself to the BSO’s rank-and-file during a full-orchestra rehearsal on Tuesday.
Dressed in a long-sleeved black T-shirt, Adès was friendly as he introduced “Totentanz,” explaining that certain passages were “basically [the] ‘Mission: Impossible’” theme song. But his mood quickly darkened as he lifted the baton, slashing the air to summon the danse macabre. With the BSO at full, bone-shaking tilt, he signaled the musicians to pause. Dabbing his brow with a black kerchief, he was nearly self-deprecating as he assured them “that’s about the worst it gets.”
“There’s an extraordinary urgency to his writing,” said BSO artistic administrator Anthony Fogg, who added that Adès often uses unlikely time signatures. “It’s so unusual that it’s completely daunting when you first look at it.”
Splitting his time between London and Los Angeles, Adès said that he rarely listens to recorded music, preferring to play it instead. “I bash through things at home,” he explained. Listening “just makes me want to be the conductor, because I sort of think: I’m not sure about that phrasing or that tempo. It’s terrible!”
Though he can seem to recede deep inside himself when thinking about music (“It’s a lot for me to sit and listen to a piece I love,” he said. “The reactions can be so intense.”), he often leavens his conversation with quick witticisms and a surprisingly expansive laugh.
But the fact is, he said, “Music is constantly running through my head,” and he views performing, conducting, and composing as parts of a creative continuum.
“Each of those things is nourished by the other two in some way,” he said, adding that he’d go “crackers” if he only worked as a composer — particularly when it comes to opera. “It sounds so pretentious, but it does become your universe. By the end it surrounds you so completely. You finish, and you sort of emerge blinking into the daylight thinking: What was that? What just happened? You leave the characters stuck in the opera, but then you are free.”
Having premiered “The Exterminating Angel” at last summer’s Salzburg Festival, Adès said he had no immediate plans to write another opera. “God, no!” he shuddered. Instead, he’s at work on a new orchestration of dances from his first opera, “Powder Her Face,” which will premiere at the Berlin Philharmonic next May.
“Every time I feel as clueless as I did when I was a teenager,” said Adès of composing. “Of course, I’m able to take myself by the hand and say, you’ve done this before. But then you say, well, no, this piece might be different.”
BSO music director Andris Nelsons said that aside from Adès’s work as a composer and musician, he looked forward to the insight Adès would offer listeners into contemporary repertoire.
“This makes a nice balance between different tastes,” said Nelsons by phone from his native Latvia. “It’s an amazing opportunity for the audience.”
Adès said that while he didn’t think he and Nelsons “overlap particularly much on repertoire” he was a “huge fan” of the maestro’s work.
“I remember the first time I heard him, I didn’t know it was him,” said Adès. “I turned on the radio, and I heard this absolutely electrifying performance of Shostakovich’s Sixth [symphony]. I thought, who is this? It was one of his early concerts with the [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra], but it really jumped out at me. It’s not at all surprising to find him here.”
He added that one of the things he found most appealing about the BSO was its embrace of contemporary music alongside the symphonic canon.
“It’s an ocean: You can go as shallow or as deep as you’re comfortable with,” he said. “That’s simply understood here. You can have difficult works from 1820, and so-called accessible works from last week.”
He added that although he’s already begun work on the BSO-commissioned piano concerto, it was too early to make any programming choices beyond the coming Tanglewood season.
I hope to bring some things over that people aren’t familiar with — composers and artists that will be new,” he said. “Watch this space.”