Composer Thomas Adès, Trading Pen for Baton In BSO Performances

British composer and pianist Thomas Adès will conduct the Baltimore Symphony this week in performances of his Violin Concerto.
British composer and pianist Thomas Adès will conduct the Baltimore Symphony this week in performances of his Violin Concerto. (By Nigel Luckhurst)
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By Molly Sheridan
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 15, 2008

Thomas Adès, who conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, is often playing a friendly game of tug of war in his own head. Sometimes the pianist in him snags the spotlight, sometimes the conductor in him grabs the baton, but the 37-year-old Brit says it's the composer inside him that gets the final word.

"The composer has to sometimes say, 'You know what? You might want to go and conduct here and here, but you have to sit at home and finish this piece!' " Even when he's been grounded by his composer-conscience, however, he enjoys the balance that this mixed musical career provides. "Composing is a very -- I don't want to say lonely, because I don't want sympathy -- but it is a solitary process, and it takes a long time," he explains. "So it's nice to come out blinking into the sunshine at the end of it and do something with other musicians and remember how that feels."

Adès will be allowed to play hooky from his composing desk this week so that he can lead the BSO in performances of Beethoven's First and Fourth symphonies alongside his own Violin Concerto, which will feature soloist Anthony Marwood. The orchestra will perform at 8 tonight and tomorrow at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and Saturday at 8 at Strathmore in North Bethesda.

The regular inclusion of work by living composers has been a hallmark of Music Director Marin Alsop's inaugural season, and though her list is filled with celebrity, Adès's inclusion is a particular coup. His rise as a composer is one of the few in our current cultural climate that might legitimately be termed meteoric. He attracted attention for his orchestral works, such as "Asyla," for which he won the coveted Grawemeyer Award in 2000, and for the scandalous content of his chamber opera "Powder Her Face," which chronicled -- in sexually graphic detail -- the decline of the notorious Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Those who keep up with the latest in these compositional circles have been fueling the buzz that tends to accompany the presentation of his confident, innovative music. Conductor Simon Rattle has been his consistent champion, often leading the Berlin Philharmonic in performances of his scores, and just last year the Barbican held a retrospective in London of Adès's output thus far.

Though esteem for his music is widespread, with some even going so far as to herald Adès as the next Benjamin Britten, other critics have been less effusive. Either way, for a composer who has not even reached his 40th birthday, it has proven to be an amazing amount of pressure.

"Of course, I'm very lucky to have had so much attention," Adès acknowledges. But it's come hand-in-hand with significant challenges. "It's like having a lot of relatives who are saying, 'I think you should do this, I think you should do that.' And in fact their opinion is not actually a part of the whole story at all. The story is something else, which only I can really judge."

These days, he says, "if I really want to do something, I'll do it, even if they don't approve. So I won't be surprised if there'll be what we call in England 'raised eyebrows.' "

Adès looks for inspiration everywhere -- other music, nature, emotions, "everything and anything." He doesn't go to a lot of concerts, he says, but when he does, he's on the lookout for what might influence his own work, and that is usually best discovered outside the gilded music halls and in more experimental settings -- "the roots and the undergrowth and where things are maybe not so complete and not so formed."

Still, when it's time for his own music to meet the public ear, it's generally in very formal settings. It's a situation he equates neatly with architecture. "It's like the difference between building a building and making lots of fantastic plans, beautiful blueprints that may, if you build them, just fall down. It's important to have those dreams, and that's where the real activity happens. Then I'm the poor guy who has to, at the end of the day, stand up there and make something that actually works and has the proper functions of a building. People can go in and out and park their cars and all that. That's where the rolling up your sleeves and the kind of blue-collar part of my job comes in."

And that's the one part of his multifaceted musical work, far away from the lights and the critics and the crowds, that he could never give up, he says: "Just me and paper and pencils and beloved erasing."

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