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Air, for violin and orchestra

Co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adès’s beautifully ethereal Air was composed for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Thomas Joseph Edmund Adès was born in London, England, and lives there and in Los Angeles, California. He composed Air in 2021-22 for the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter; the piece was commissioned by Roche as part of Roche Commissions for the Lucerne Festival and co-commissioned by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Carnegie Hall, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Boston Symphony Orchestra commission is through the generous support of the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency, and the Arthur P. Contas Commissioning Fund. Mutter gave the world premiere with the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy under the Adès’s direction on August 27, 2022, at the Lucerne Festival, Switzerland. The BSO's April 20-22, 2023, performances constitute the American premiere of Air; on April 25, the BSO, Nelsons, and Mutter perform the piece at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In addition to the solo violin, the score for Air calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contraforte or contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, percussion (3 players: handbells, tuned gongs, marimba, tam-tam, tambourine, large wood chimes, bass drum), harp, piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Air is about 13 minutes long.

The extraordinary demand for new music by the English composer, conductor, and pianist Thomas Adès has led to one high-profile work after another in the past two decades. These include the operas The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel, the piano concerto In Seven Days and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (the latter a Boston Symphony Orchestra commission), the orchestral works Tevot and Polaris, and Totentanz, a dramatic 40-minute work for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra. He also created an Exterminating Angel Symphony based on music from his opera. His latest big work, completed in 2021, is a three-part ballet based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, composed for the UK’s Royal Ballet. Co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dante is also readily performable as concert music, adding another big piece to the composer’s repertoire as an orchestral conductor. Adès led performances of music from the ballet—the Inferno Suite and Paradiso—with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall earlier this spring.

A fascination with music history and tradition has led Adès increasingly to put his stamp on the major compositional genres—demonstrably in the sketchily definable forms of ballet and opera but more pointedly in “symphony” and “concerto.” His Grawemeyer Award-winning Asyla is a symphony in all but name, though by not calling it a symphony he could deflect direct comparisons to the genre. Though his In Seven Days for piano and orchestra is a programmatic work, doubling as a tone poem on the creation myth from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, with his 2019 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the choice of title was deliberate in marking the piece out as what he deemed “a proper concerto.” His Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths (2006), comes equipped with a subtitle suggesting some of its musical characteristics. It’s nonetheless called a concerto, and its three-movement form adheres, to a point, to the genre’s traditional expectations.

Adès’s Air for violin and orchestra for Anne-Sophie Mutter is a different kind of piece—a single movement that sets out on a singular journey. There’s a subtitle here, too: “Homage to Sibelius.” Music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) has had a strong presence in Thomas Adès’s repertoire since the blossoming of his major career as a guest conductor some two decades ago. As a conductor with the BSO over more than ten seasons, Adès has led music of Sibelius more frequently than that of any composer other than himself. That he designated his new work for violin and orchestra, Air, as an “Homage to Sibelius” further underlines his affinity with the Finnish master.

That affinity probably lies, as much as anything, in Adès’s admiration for the formal individuality of Sibelius’s later music, spanning the period of the Fourth through the Seventh symphonies, a period represented in the opening and closing works on this week’s concerts. In these increasingly innovative pieces, ideas barely identifiable as “theme” or “motive” are the basis for large-scale, dramatically varied movements created through the organic transformation of those ideas. The pacing of events could, however, be even more protracted, the character more constrained. In such tone poems as The Bard and The Swan of Tuonela, Sibelius sustained remarkable consistency of atmosphere over relatively long stretches of musical time. It’s this latter achievement that relates most closely to Air.

Air was composed in 2021-2022; Anne-Sophie Mutter gave the world premiere under the composer’s direction in Lucerne in August 2022. Considered, since her late teens, one of the preeminent violinists in the world, Mutter has earned accolades for her performances of the great violin concerto canon populated by works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius. In addition, she has been responsible for expanding the solo repertoire, actively commissioning and premiering major works by such composers as Henri Dutilleux, Sofia Gubaidulina, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Wolfgang Rihm, among others. Mutter’s longstanding connection to the Boston Symphony Orchestra has included the premieres of André Previn’s Violin Concerto Anne-Sophie as well as his Double Concerto for violin, double bass, and orchestra. In 2021, she gave the first performances of John Williams’s Markings and his Violin Concerto No. 2 with the BSO under the composer’s direction. She recorded both Williams’s and Previn’s concertos with the BSO. With Adès’s Air, her legacy of introducing new works with the BSO is even more firmly established.

Adès composed Air immediately following the long journey of composing and bringing to the stage The Dante Project. Though requiring a virtuosic level of tone control and expressive intensity, the piece avoids flash, fireworks, or episodes of transcendent athleticism. It maintains a nearly constant mood throughout, like the Sibelius tone poems referenced above and, among Adès’s own works, his recent Dawn and Shanty—Over the Sea.

Air employs one of the composer’s favorite formal or procedural ideas, in which a repeated, short harmonic/melodic progression is the foundation and background for ever-transforming music in the foreground, as in a passacaglia or chaconne. This relates to the ever-climbing concentric circles of the Paradiso section of Dante as well as to passages in Concentric Paths and other works, trajectories leading to clear culmination or a point of change. He writes, “[Air] is actually an enormous canon or a series of canons at the 10th [that is, an octave and a third]. They rise and at the same time descend, so that with so many modulations [key changes] you end up arriving again at the point where you started, but transformed into something else. Anne-Sophie’s part is the freest agent within this mix.” A canon is a special musical idea in which one line is imitated at a fixed pitch interval and duration, as in the round “Frère Jacques” (which is a canon at the unison, or the same pitch, following at a distance of four beats). Adès suggests that over the course of Air the solo part, like its quasi-namesake Ariel, Shakespeare’s mercurial but indentured island spirit, dreams of escaping the predetermined constraints that govern the music’s journey. This escape seems to transpire in a kind of coda and cadence at the end of the piece.

The canon’s predetermination still allows for subtlety and nuance. In addition to the constantly changing harmonic colors, Adès adds instrumental details throughout the piece that, within its serene surface, have outsized effects. The instrumental landscape of the instruments in canon continually shifts—strings, horns, flutes, clarinets. Deep bass notes in percussion, piano, and low strings that punctuate the higher melodic lines add extraordinary dimension as the thread of the piece spins out. A varied texture of piano, harp, marimba, and tuned gongs provides a gamelan-like steady-state background pulse.

The title’s layered meanings take in the English equivalent of “aria” (e.g., Bach’s “Air” from his Orchestral Suite No. 3) as well as the air of our environment, our medium of sound. What marvelous things composers have created from the subtle manipulations of air.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.