Thomas Adès brings fresh wildness to the Boston Symphony

(Critic’s Notebook): Many composers also perform on an instrument and conduct. But, in two recent concerts at Carnegie Hall, Thomas Adès took this to another level, demonstrating yet again his extraordinary skill as an all-around musician.

Thomas Adès brings fresh wildness to the Boston Symphony

Last week at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, he more than held his own as a pianist alongside the virtuoso Kirill Gerstein in a demanding program of works for two pianos. And Wednesday, on Carnegie’s main stage, Adès led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the New York premiere of his new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra — written for Gerstein, who exhilaratingly dispatched this joyous and audacious piece’s formidable solo part.

To end that program, the second of two Boston Symphony concerts at Carnegie this week, Adès conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. It makes sense that a composer leading this staple would bring heightened insights into how the music goes, and how the details add up to the whole. Composers wrestle with these issues in their own scores all the time.

Adès brought so much more.

He drew colorful and lucid playing from the orchestra, even when taking risks and driving climaxes to extremes; the players seemed willing to go along for the trip. In its day, Tchaikovsky’s symphony was a cutting-edge, contemporary work. And that’s how Adès made it sound on Wednesday night.

The brass fanfare (the “fate” motif) that opens the first movement was lean, mean and loud. Yet the mood changed entirely during the sighing, restless main theme, played with yearning. There was nothing smooth, sleek or familiar about this interpretation. During episodes of development, Adès emphasized the tangled complexity of crisscrossing lines.

During the slow movement, which has a wistful theme like a Russian folk song, Adès drew rich, deep tones from the strings. Yet he also teased out intricacies you seldom notice in other performances of this symphony, even if this meant the overall arc of the music lost some continuity. The scherzo, with its pizzicato strings, was crisp and playful, made intriguing by a hint of obsession. Adès and the players went all out during the frenetic finale. And why not?

Perhaps I was primed to detect fresh wildness in the Tchaikovsky; I had just heard Adès’s concerto right before.

Knowing that Gerstein also plays jazz piano, Adès plays to that style in this work. From the start of the bustling first movement, with a theme that seems to nod to the jerky rhythms and rising melody of “I’ve Got Rhythm,” there are echoes of Gershwin, the jazz-inspired Ravel and more.

This breathless, 20-minute concerto, structured in three essentially traditional movements (fast, slow, fast), comes across as zesty and accessible. But don’t be fooled. Just below the surface, the music sizzles with modernist harmonies, fractured phrases, gaggles of counterpoint and lyrical strands that keep breaking into skittish bits. The finale is a riotous, clattering, assaultive romp. I can’t wait to hear it again.

The Boston Symphony’s concert on Tuesday was led by the orchestra’s music director, Andris Nelsons. It was an all-Richard Strauss program highlighted by star soprano Renée Fleming singing a concert version of the closing scene from his final opera, “Capriccio,” which she triumphed in at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011.

This scene’s radiant, gorgeous soliloquy — in which Countess Madeleine mulls which suitor, a poet or a composer, to favor, and in the process debates whether poetry or music is the greater art — was made to order for Fleming’s plush, lyrical voice. She sounded wonderful. Then she paid tribute to André Previn, who died recently, by singing a deeply expressive account of final aria from the opera he wrote for her, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Nelsons also led a pulsing, dramatic account of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” though I found some of the playing rough and jittery. During this performance, as on other occasions, Nelsons seemed to be physically uncomfortable, sometimes propping himself up by placing his left hand on the rail around the conductor’s podium.

But that doesn’t mean the orchestra isn’t thriving under his leadership. The Boston Symphony recently picked up yet another Grammy Award for its series of Shostakovich recordings. And the latest installment — featuring the composer’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies — was just released.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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