Thomas Adès at 50

James Nightingale profiles a leading composer

Photo by Bettina Strenske / Alamy Stock Photo

English composer Thomas Adès is one of today’s most prominent composers and musicians. A gifted pianist and conductor, he has recorded chamber music and songs with many of the world’s best musicians, as well as having composed for the finest orchestras and chamber ensembles.

Born in London to artistic parents Dawn and Timothy, Adès studied music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before heading to Cambridge to complete his University studies. There, he worked with Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway and graduated in 1992 with firsts in both piano and composition. Initially, Adès travelled the world as an in-demand musician: in 2004 he took up the post of Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music and was composer in residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2005-2007 and at the Melbourne Festival in 2010. More recently, Adès’ attention has been on music for theatre and film, culminating with Exterminating Angel, an opera based on a film of the same name. He also wrote the music for the biographical film Colette. Recent performing credits have displayed his passion for the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, including a recording of Janáček’s works for solo piano.

At the heart of Adès’ symphonic works are three major pieces: Asyla; Tevot; and Polaris. Though not symphonies, they are nonetheless works of great ambition that use musical ideas to build metaphors for their subjects. Asyla – for which Adès was awarded the Grawemeyer Award, the world’s richest composition prize – plays on the plural of the word asylum and the word’s double meaning: a place of safety that is also a prison for the insane.

In Hebrew, words with similar meanings share a common root. As such, Adès’ Tevot, which takes its name from the word for music bars or measures, also references Noah’s Ark, and the cradle in which the baby Moses travelled down the Nile (all being similarly enclosed). Like Asyla, the title references a place of safety and Adès expands this idea to become a metaphor for the Earth travelling through space, sheltering humanity on its journey through the universe.

The North Star, a beacon of navigation for sailors, is the subject of the third part of the trilogy, Polaris. One review described Polaris as a ‘friendly complication’, a description that could be used for much of Adès’ music. His works are not simple, but they nonetheless draw the listener in. Adès’ ability to intrigue comes from his capacity
to research and draw together conflicting ideas. For example, America: A Prophecy, which was composed for Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic to mark the new millennium, draws on sources from the (pre-Spanish) Mayan civilisation in Mexico, and words and music from the militant Christian Spanish invaders. In combining these sources, Adès juxtaposes nature and progress, themes which have only increased in relevance since it was composed. Tellingly, Adès makes no claim to sit on either side of the politics exposed in the work: instead, he hopes that the music will make people think and re-evaluate their preconceptions.

To celebrate Thomas Adès’ 50th birthday this March, Fine Music presents a Sunday Special dedicated to this leading musician of the 21st century, including tracks from his recordings with Anthony Marwood, Steven Isserlis and Ian Bostridge.

Program air date: Sunday 7 March at 3pm.

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