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Thomas Adès in all his aspects

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's creative partnership bears fruit in April's 'Aspects of Adès,' and the lauded British composer reflects on turning 40 amid high expectations.

March 06, 2011|By Matthew Erikson, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • 'ASPECTS' : "I feel about my pieces a bit perhaps like a parent. I am not them, and they are not me," Thomas Ades says.
'ASPECTS' : "I feel about my pieces a bit perhaps like a… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

International fame just doesn't happen to many classical composers. But when it does, it can strike like a runaway train.

Consider Thomas Adès. Hailed in his 20s as the heir to Benjamin Britten and more recently by the New York Times as maybe "the most accomplished overall musician before the public today," Adès has long been accustomed to accolades and the pressure of high expectations. But two years ago, when noises were first being made for coordinated festivities in different musical capitals to observe his 40th birthday, the British composer said that he felt a bit trapped.

"The first thing I thought was 'Really?' It all seemed so pompous or grandiloquent," Adès recalled. "We should be looking forward to celebrate rather than looking back."

Adès turned down the idea of a grand musical retrospective, instead spending his birthday on March 1 with friends and family in his native London. Less lofty and better suited, he believes, to his personal tastes as a musical collaborator and curator is the upcoming Los Angeles Philharmonic festival "Aspects of Adès."

Programmed and put together by the composer, "Aspects of Adès" begins on March 14 with the first of five programs at Walt Disney Concert Hall. While his prodigious talents as a composer, pianist and conductor will be displayed with performances of two of his newest compositions, Adès shares the festival with world premieres by other composers, most notably, a new opera by Irish composer Gerald Barry. Adès will lead the L.A. Phil in three subscription programs, including its first-ever performance of Olivier Messiaen's vast and visionary "Éclairs sur l'au-delà" ("Illuminations of the Beyond").

"Aspects of Adès" cements a close creative partnership that the composer has had with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the last four seasons. Over that same period, he has also made the city a home. When he's not on tour or at his home and "headquarters" in London's Covent Garden neighborhood, he lives in a gray, inconspicuous house nestled in a Hollywood Hills cul-de-sac.

Los Angeles has been a special place for Adès, ever since he played in a Green Umbrella concert in 1996. "I never thought that L.A. was about swimming pools and sun," he said at his house. "Of course, everything is glamorous here, but it wasn't about that.

"I thought, here was a place with this open access to the people who are really making things happen in the arts somehow."

When the late philanthropist and arts maven Betty Freeman gave Adès his first tour of Los Angeles in 1996 (preserved in a photograph included in one of Freeman's published albums), Adès admitted looking "very English, very awkward and straight off the boat." He has since acclimated to what he considers the city's many creative and "surreal" charms. "You really feel that L.A. is a place where the extreme, the really out-there can flourish," Adès said. "In some cities the radical can become mainstream very sort of slickly and easily, and suddenly its sting is drawn. But I don't feel that here."

Reclining in his sitting room wearing designer sunglasses, T-shirt, jeans and Converse sneakers, Adès gave a casual impression, undermined occasionally by booming nervous laughter that punctuates his sentences. Adès gives relatively few interviews. He said that he prefers his music to speak for itself.

"I feel about my pieces a bit perhaps like a parent. I am not them, and they are not me. And I didn't want to be a kind of an embarrassing dad," he said. "If I perhaps stayed in the background a bit and try to put the music more in the foreground, I'm more comfortable."

Though much of Adès' music has been heard in Los Angeles the last few years, it eludes easy description. No two works sound much alike, and his music typically involves a kind of unpredictability, playful juxtaposition of extremes and heady originality that can leave audiences both disoriented and elated. Proof positive is the 2007 symphonic work "Tevot," recently released on CD by EMI with the Berlin Philharmonic. Beginning with stratospheric scampering in the strings, the work takes several hairpin turns before ending with a lush, hypnotic melody that envelops the listener like a warm blanket.

"I have always been struck by how easily he could make something very rich and strong out of something very simple," said pianist Nicolas Hodges, a longtime colleague of Adès' who studied music alongside him at Cambridge. "I think his music has a depth that is not in a lot of contemporary music these days."

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