In a biographical headline, Thomas Adès is described as ‘composer, pianist, conductor.’ Although he made his earliest success as a pianist, winning second prize in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1989 (at age 18), he considers composing his primary musical strength. “When you come to see me play the piano,” he has said, “you’re seeing a composer who is a pianist.”
As composer his success has been impressive. The orchestral work Asyla won the Grawemeyer Award for Composition in 2000, making Adès the youngest composer to have won this prize. His operas, orchestral works, chamber music, concertos, and piano music are performed frequently all over the world and have been recorded. He has done an “On Location” residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall and next season will be the subject of a festival, “Aspects of Adès.” For a musician not yet 40, his achievements have been extraordinary.
The Three Mazurkas were premiered by Emanuel Ax in February at Carnegie Hall, one of the co-commissioners of the pieces along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Barbican Centre (London), and Het Concertgebouw NV.
After Chopin, composers were understandably satisfied to give that master the final word on the mazurka. Yet Thomas Adès, with his keen interest in early music, has sought to make a contemporary statement on this distinctly historical Polish dance form. The likeness of his Mazurkas to the Chopin model is seen primarily in the matters of rhythm: the three-quarter time signature is most often used, although the time changes in the second mazurka are a stylistic departure; the direction for rubato (the Chopinesque characteristic rhythmic freedom), and the use of the drone, or consecutive-repeated bass that is typical of folk music.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.