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Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra comes from the very heart of the piano genre: it is a “proper” piano concerto of a sort we’ve seen few of since the days of Bartók. Adès’s musical voice suffuses the piece, deploying rigorous craft in the service of musical fluidity and expressiveness.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born in London, March 1, 1971
  • Year completed: 2019
  • First BSO performances: March 7-9, 2019, Thomas Adès cond., with soloist Kirill Gerstein
  • Approximate duration: 20 minutes

Thomas Joseph Edmund Adès was born in London on March 1, 1971, and lives there. He wrote his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in 2018-19 for Kirill Gerstein on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, through the generous support of Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser, and through the generous support of the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency. The BSO and Kirill Gerstein gave the world premiere performances under the composer’s direction in March 2019, at Symphony Hall, followed by a Carnegie Hall concert two weeks later and the European premiere with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig on April 25 and 26, 2019.

In addition to the solo piano, the score of Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra calls for 2 flutes, piccolo (doubling alto flute), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (first in B-flat, second in A), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and rototom, percussion (3 players: glockenspiel, xylophone, bass marimba, 2 suspended cymbals, choke cymbal, sizzle cymbal, small crash cymbals, castanets, wood block, small tambourine, large cowbell [or reco-reco], guero, 2 or more whips, tam-tam, side drum, bass drum [with mounted cymbals-machine]), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 20 minutes long.

Thomas Adès composed his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra for soloist Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The idea was born in fall 2012 when Gerstein and Adès were preparing for performances with the BSO of Adès’s earlier concerto, In Seven Days. As they worked together, Gerstein demurely suggested to Adès that he would like to “get in line” to commission a new work from the busy composer. Adès replied, “Does it have to be a solo work?” and said he might like to write “a proper concerto.” When they arrived in Boston to work with the orchestra, the two proposed the new concerto commission to then-BSO artistic director Anthony Fogg, who immediately said, “We’ll do it.” Gerstein calls it the quickest commissioning agreement in history. He later learned that he had “cut the line”; Adès became so involved in writing his concerto that he put off writing pieces that would otherwise have taken precedent. Although Gerstein and Adès first collaborated a dozen years ago performing Stravinsky’s Les Noces, since their 2012 BSO concerts they’ve developed a deep musical friendship. Along with performing In Seven Days with several different orchestras, they also devised a two-piano recital that they first performed at Tanglewood. Adès ultimately did write Gerstein a solo work as well, a piano version of the Berceuse from his 2017 opera The Exterminating Angel.

Adès’s concerto also celebrates the composer’s important ongoing relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Having led the orchestra on several occasions since his debut in 2011, for the 2016-17 season he was named the BSO’s first-ever Artistic Partner, an unprecedented role created to showcase the composer-conductor-pianist-curator’s many interests and talents on various collaborative levels. In addition to conducting the BSO, he has performed as pianist with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, with tenor Ian Bostridge in Schubert’s Winterreise, directed the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, performed as solo pianist with the BSO, and conducted the TMC Orchestra.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is just the latest in the series of large-scale, high-profile orchestral and dramatic projects that have dominated Adès’s compositional activity in the 2000s. These have included his operas The Tempest, based on Shakespeare’s play and first performed in 2004 at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; and The Exterminating Angel, based on the film by Luis Buñuel and premiered in 2016 at the Salzburg Festival, which commissioned it along with the Royal Opera in London, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Danish Royal Opera. Between and concurrent with these undertakings were his Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths (2005); the piano concerto In Seven Days (2008); the orchestral works Tevot (2007) and Polaris (2010); Totentanz for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra (2013), and Lieux retrouvés for cello and orchestra (2016). He made a foray into film music, writing the score for Wash Westmoreland’s widely released 2018 biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley as the French writer; created The Exterminating Angel Symphony based on music from the opera, and composed a ballet score based on Dante’s Commedia.

Adès has continually developed his art via traditional compositional genres and, occasionally, stylistic mimicry. His Asyla is a symphony in all but name, though by not calling it a symphony he could deflect direct comparisons to the genre. His concertos for violin (Concentric Paths) and piano (the eight-minute Concerto Conciso from 1997 as well as In Seven Days), though acknowledged as concertos, are works with perspectives unique to themselves. In Seven Days, for example, doubles as a tone poem on the creation myth from the Book of Genesis. The overall form is far removed from the concertos of Mozart, Brahms, or even Ravel.

By contrast, Adès’s approach to his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra—as its unleavened title hints—comes from the very heart of the piano genre: it is a “PROPER” piano concerto of a sort that Gerstein suggests we’ve seen very few of since the days of Bartók (without dismissing the significance of such works as Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, among others). The three-movement, fast-slow-fast overall form has its roots in the Classical tradition. Adès employs clearly audible thematic ideas with an almost traditional opposition of characters, e.g., the rhythmically charged opening piano idea in contrast with the “more expressive second subject.” That he calls the second subject a “second subject”—synonymous with “theme” in musical parlance—is telling, redolent of descriptions of sonata form. The concerto even calls for solo cadenzas.

Adès’s musical voice suffuses the piece, deploying rigorous craft in the service of musical fluidity and expressiveness. The flexibility of meter and rhythm is characteristic: the careful, unusual notation belies the push-pull of the rhythm, a composed rubato typical of Adès’s music. The concerto’s harmonic clarity, idiosyncratically tonal and developing with organic rigor, is also Adès through and through. The orchestra is brilliant and sparkling but also supplies dimension and depth. Its colors and harmonies often seem to have been catalyzed by the piano’s moods and material. (The composer’s own note on his piece appears below.)

After hearing hints of what the concerto might be like for months, Gerstein first saw it in substantially completed form at Tanglewood in 2018 when visiting Adès socially with his family. The composer pointed to a score on the piano, saying, “there’s your concerto,” and was persuaded to talk and play through parts of it. Since receiving the completed score, Gerstein said the process of learning it proceeded in a very “21st-century” way—he’d text or email Adès a flurry of questions, or record a snippet of video on his phone to ask about his approach to a particular passage. When they were able to meet in person with Gerstein playing through the solo part, Adès would lean over his shoulder to make infinitesimal adjustments in pencil to chord spacings or rhythms. As for its challenges, Gerstein says they’re “no joking”: the concerto calls for “piano playing on a grand scale, very virtuosic,” but, after years of working with Adès, the composer’s music has become a natural part of Gerstein’s own style.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.

Thomas Adès on his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

The first movement Allegramente opens with a statement of the theme by piano and then tutti. A march-like bridge passage leads to the more expressive second subject, first played by the piano and then taken up by the orchestra. The development section interrogates the first theme before an octave mini-cadenza leads to the recapitulation ff. There is then a solo cadenza based on the second subject, first played tremolo and then over many octaves, the piano joined first by horn and then by the full orchestra. The movement ends with a coda based on the first theme and the march.

The second movement Andante gravemente consists of a chordal introduction and a melody, which is joined by a countermelody, and a second idea with a simple falling melody over rising harmony. The first melody reappears, leading to a fortissimo climax, subsiding to a final statement of the original theme and a coda based on the countermelody.

The finale Allegro giojoso begins with a three-chord call to arms, and then a tumbling theme for piano and orchestra, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of a clarinet solo, heralding a burlesque canon. There is a good deal of argument, with frequent differences of opinion as regards key, brought to an end by the call to arms. Eventually the piano takes up a new theme in the style of a ball bouncing downstairs and develops it to a chorale climax. The tumbling material is developed, and the call to arms is heard in multiple directions leading to an impasse, a winding down of tempo, and a new slow (Grave) section in three time with a new falling theme. This leads to a precipice which the piano falls off with the original tumbling theme, and a coda lining up all the other themes for a final resolution on the call to arms.

Thomas Adès