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Composed: 2010
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd = piccolo, 3rd = piccolo and alto flute), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contraforte (or contrabassoon with low A), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, crotales, wood chimes, shell chimes, tam-tam, bass drum), 2 harps, piano (= celesta), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance (West Coast premiere)

Commissioned by the New World Symphony Orchestra, Miami for the opening of the Frank Gehry Hall. Partnered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; the New York Philharmonic; the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; The Barbican, London; the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and the San Francisco Symphony.

With its imagery of the sea and stars, Polaris touches on the allegorical soundscape Adès employed so effectively to shape his opera score on Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2004). The world premiere of Polaris in January helped inaugurate the new concert hall designed by Frank Gehry for the New World Symphony in Miami. Adès – who has also conducted that ensemble – remarks that Miami drew him to a “marine theme” since he associates the city with the sea. There is no program as such, but the central idea of the piece refers to the role of the North Star as a navigational device that guided sailors from time immemorial.

Complementing the music is a film created by Tal Rosner, which was designed specifically to take advantage of the five-screen canvas featured in the audiovisually active new Gehry hall. The iconic illustrations that Rockwell Kent made in 1930 for an edition of Moby-Dick fired Rosner’s imagination. His film involves a mélange of graphic elements and two actresses who enigmatically appear on the beach. Rosner and Adès have also collaborated in similar fashion for the composer’s recent piano concerto, In Seven Days, which was featured at the beginning of the Aspects of Adès festival.

Adès suggests the image of the North Star, which gives the illusion of a fixed, eternal point around which the other stars seem to revolve, through a musical process he likens to magnetic attraction. He constructs the fundamental theme undergirding the piece as a series of notes in which a particular pitch gains prominence as a “lodestar” which seems to attract the surrounding pitches. Unlike the clear gravitational pull of tonality, the kaleidoscopic swirl from other instruments creates restless, concentric waves of sound with the brass, which present their material in canon in a sequence descending from the highest range to the lowest. While Adès uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, his “magnetic series” by definition rejects the egalitarian principle of serialism.

Polaris unfolds in three sections. The first gathers in orchestral density and energy until the brass sound out all twelve notes, reaching a climax punctuated by timpani. This is followed by a “resetting” as the poles reverse and the process begins anew. Another climax, and then, more serenely scored, yet another magnetic series commences, culminating in a kind of cosmic dance for the entire orchestra. Suddenly the music becomes violently fractured — as if desperately seeking a cadence. Instead of easy closure, a dramatic final chord points to uncharted vistas beyond.