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Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 piccolos, 3 flutes, bass flute, 3 oboes, bass oboe, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, piccolo trumpet, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (roto-toms, bass drum, pedal bass drum, finger drums, side drum, bell plates, cowbells, tubular bells, Chinese cymbal, suspended cymbals, choke cymbal, hi-hat cymbal, crash cymbals, sizzle cymbal, large tin cans, geophone, tam-tam, water gongs, gongs, ratchets, washboard, sandpaper blocks, bag of metal cutlery, glockenspiel, crotales) grand piano, celesta, two upright pianos, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: June 2, 2000, Simon Rattle conducting (Ojai Festival)
Adès has enjoyed enormous visibility since first emerging as a composer in the early 1990s. He quickly dazzled thanks to the confidence with which he discovered his unique voice, with scarcely a pause to clear his throat.
A less-self-assured artist might well have buckled under the high-stakes pressure of such international attention, which was accompanied by all the hyperbole of great expectations (routine comparisons with the young Benjamin Britten and the like). This was especially so in the wake of Adès' sensational operatic debut, Powder Her Face, from 1995. This chamber opera, an irreverent satire drawn from the tabloid fall-from-grace scandal of the Duchess of Argyll (with shades of a latter-day Lulu), showed Adès as a composer of Nabokovian fluency, able to delight in the multifaceted possibilities of his unpredictably witty and allusive musical language.
Yet Adès forged ahead to produce another high-profile triumph when Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony commissioned his Asyla, Op. 17. (Adès makes use of the old-fashioned if not quaint system of keeping track of his compositions according to opus number.) This compact four-movement symphony, premiered Oct. 1, 1997, is immense not only in its scoring for large orchestra but in the emotional range it telescopes into its deceptively brief duration. Indeed, for his debut concert as newly appointed music director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002, Rattle programmed Asyla alongside Mahler's Fifth Symphony, making explicit the Mahlerian ambition both of Adès' expressive universe and of his technical adroitness in deploying such an enormous orchestral palette.
If this sounds like a recipe for hubris, it's all the more impressive that Asyla continues to involve the listener in a gripping experience, the authenticity of its adventurous spirit still intact nearly a decade into the piece's existence.
Asyla - Adès' choice of title is typically suggestive and mysterious - is the Latin plural of "asylum," which can mean both a place of inviolable refuge and an institution for the insane. The beauty of Asyla is how it plays on this plurality of meaning without devolving into a chaos of too-muchness. Like overactively firing synapses, Adès' score shoots out to create multiple simultaneous associations. Yet he is able to hold all these impulses together through deft structural logic. After an intriguingly ritualistic call to attention issued by ringing cowbells, the first movement traces a sprawling theme (first heard in the horns): it hints of baroque gravitas and Brucknerian grandeur, blended with the unmistakably restless energy that is Adès' signature. A bit past the midpoint, frenzied flourishes in the trumpets give a foretaste of the madness to come in the third movement ("Ecstasio").
In the slow movement following, Adès imprints the convention of the musical lament (characterized by an inexorably descending line) with his fertile imagination: the mesmerizing sonority of a piano tuned a quarter-tone flat adds an edge, while the dusky hues of the bass oboe intone the principal melody. The most overtly "programmatic" element in Asyla comes in the frenetic third movement evoking a night of '90s London club raving and excess (the "Ecstasio" referred to here is both a psychospiritual state and the pharmacological passport to it, the drug Ecstasy). Dance beats build in layers and phosphoresce as they weave in and out, creating a funhouse sense of shifting musical points of view. Here is a microcosm of the simultaneous diffuseness and coherence of Asyla as a whole.
The final movement presses on after the preceding "trip" reaches its limit, opening up yet a more expansive emotional labyrinth over the resoundingly cavernous bass. Ultimately Asyla arrives at a sense of breakthrough in the immense shimmering spasm of chords of its final pages: an illusion of asylum?
- Thomas May's books Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader are available from Amadeus Press.