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Composed: 2005 (co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association – with funding from Lenore and Bernard Greenberg – and the Berlin Festspiele)
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongo, metal block, metal can, cowbell, clash cymbal, 3 low drums of different pitches, metal and wood guero, snare drum, tam-tam, woodblock, wood drum), strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 10, 2006, with violinist Anthony Marwood and the composer conducting (U.S. premiere)
The colorful, distinctive, sure-footed theatricality that underscores Adès’ two operas also informs much of his orchestral music. In the wake of Powder Her Face (his 1995 chamber opera drawn from a tabloid fall-from-grace story), he produced his first large-scale concert piece, Asyla. This symphony for Mahler-sized orchestra ranges far within its expertly compact design and includes a movement evoking a night of London club raving and excess. His Violin Concerto – premiered September 4, 2005 in Berlin – follows on the richly scored palette of The Tempest. While in some respects the Concerto echoes a new level of mastery and humaneness signaled by the recent opera, it also introduces a note of spareness and – at its core – desolation that suggests a strikingly novel tack for the composer.
Adès subtitles his work “Concentric Paths.” It refers – perhaps with a witty archaism hinting at the music of the spheres – to specific aspects of the Concerto’s design (the three movements are respectively called Rings, Paths, and Rounds). But “concentric paths” might also serve as a catchphrase for a larger Adès aesthetic. Much of his music involves a plurality of simultaneous energies, both centrifugal and centripetal. Moreover, Adès incorporates a postmodern consciousness of stylistic choices (from Ligeti and Brahms to pop culture) without succumbing to pastiche or effacing the singular path of his own identity.
Even while following the familiar fast-slow-fast three-movement pattern, Adès readjusts expectations by placing the gravitational center in the middle: the slow movement is longer than the outer movements combined, in effect creating what he calls a “triptych.” This movement unfolds, as the composer describes it, in “two large, and very many small, independent cycles, which overlap and clash, sometimes violently, in their motion towards resolution.” Further enhancing this cyclic sense are the chaconne-like repetitions of the movement’s opening sequence, as grave and gripping as a baroque lament. Fiercely interruptive punctuations only heighten the soloist’s expressive urgency, which attains a deeply moving eloquence in its successive “overlaps” with the ensemble.
Opening the Concerto is a brief movement “with sheets of unstable harmony in different orbits.” It traces an impatient perpetuum mobile: restless arpeggios (with echoes of the violin concertos of Berg and Ligeti) alternate between the violinist and winds while the harmonic sands continually shift underneath. Exploitation of the violin’s highest range calls to mind the otherworldliness of Ariel’s vocalism in Adès’ The Tempest.
After the emotional intensity of the slow movement, the finale leads us to a relaxed state, “with stable cycles moving in harmony at different rates.” Adès playfully hints at the tradition of a rondo to wrap things up, introducing a tune whose jaunty syncopations dissipate the opaque tensions that have come before. The violin disarms with simple gestures of pure songfulness. For the most part it remains blissfully unperturbed by the cycles orbiting around it, though it occasionally joins in the fray, as in the spiraling high jinks with which the Concerto abruptly concludes.
Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and contributes to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.