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The Fierce Rise of a Young Composer

Thomas Ades, whose exuberant compositions will be showcased at the Ojai Music Festival, is a brash and sophisticated force in the classical world.

May 28, 2000|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | Justin Davidson is the chief classical and culture writer at large of Newsday

Thomas Ades, a looming young man with bulky shoulders, a rumbling voice and a large, brooding face, belongs to a category long thought to have become extinct. He is a famous composer of concert music. The situation seems to strike him as either grave or hilarious. He goes around wearing a supercilious frown that looks as if at any moment it might crack into a guffaw.

Size and seriousness, and that undercurrent of hilarity, characterize his music too. "Asyla," for example--the wild, panoramic symphony Simon Rattle and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform at the Ojai Music Festival on Friday--contains a movement subtitled "Ecstasio," a multiple reference to rapturous exertion, the frenzied intricacies of trance pop and to ecstasy, the chic drug of the '90s. It begins with the strings suspended in the shimmering regions of wind chimes and ozone, then a limping rhythmic figure picks up speed and intensity until it replicates on an orchestral scale the sonic assault and psychedelic seething of an urban dance club.

What startles the ear is the composer's personality, which is sophisticated, truculent, theatrical and brash. Or perhaps that is only the score's personality; Ades, mistrustful of interviews and public appearances, has taken care to present himself as inscrutable.

The festival will showcase him, along with his fellow British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, as representative of a remarkable renaissance. Britain, a land that the international musical community once happily condescended to, has lately been experiencing an astonishing ferment of composing talent. Ades and Turnage--and Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Julian Anderson and Judith Weir, among others--are the creators; Rattle, the great promoter.

As head of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for 17 years, Rattle turned a backwater into a musical hub, thanks in part to his championship of British composers. Turnage's "Momentum" helped inaugurate the orchestra's new hall in 1991. Ades' "Asyla" helped mark the end of Rattle's tenure there in 1998.

Ades, who is 29, comes from an intellectually well-nourished background. His father is a translator, his mother is scholar of Surrealist art Dawn Ades, and he was still a student at Cambridge when he became a high-art celebrity. He was first noticed in 1990 and by 1995 was a featured composer at the Aldeburgh Festival. A few years after that, he became the festival's artistic director. Since then, the beat of falling laurels has been getting louder and faster.

Commissions have come from London's Royal Opera, Rattle's Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. He has been named professor at the Royal Academy of Music and music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. EMI has released four all-Ades CDs, with a fifth disc coming in the fall. Late last year, "Asyla" won the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award.

It's difficult to imagine that Ades' trajectory would have been anywhere near as dramatic had he happened to be born in the U.S., where the last truly famous composer of concert music was Aaron Copland. But such things can happen in Britain. There, the insider enthusiasms of a clubby music world get ventilated by a nationalistic and hyperbolic press.

"There are eight papers in London, plus the BBC and Classic FM [radio]," says Jessica Lustig, a New York-based manager who handles young composers. "The media are centralized, so there's the opportunity to create a consensus. Here, if someone has a success in a concert in L.A., there's no guarantee that the intelligentsia in New York will even find out about it."

Ades' first professional visit to New York--to play on a concert of British chamber music sponsored by the New York Philharmonic in the spring of 1998--was a small affair, but it was unmistakably an event. His opera "Powder Her Face" had already been given in Aspen, Colo., and the Minneapolis Symphony had performed "Asyla," so the hall was filled with music world insiders who had heard more about Ades than they had heard of his music.

A ferociously gifted pianist with a penchant for outlandishness, Ades packed his shot-putter's frame into an Oscar Wilde tail coat and set off his heavy jaw with a white foulard. He bowed solemnly, then plunged into "Traced Overhead," a solo piano piece that rises explosively into the ether like a Roman candle and releases a shower of sparkling notes. Next, he played "Concerto Conciso," a piano concerto with chamber ensemble that combines the barreling rhythmic discipline and piercing precision of Stravinsky and Bartok with a sweaty abandon reminiscent of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis or of maverick American keyboard-bangers of the 1940s like Henry Cowell or Carl Ruggles.

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