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REVIEW: Thomas Adès enthralls SummerFest audience with dazzling pianism and profound chamber music

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog
August 8, 2023

He played piano masterfully and captivated us with his compositions. Thomas Adès has left SummerFest, but the memory of his residency remains.

There was perhaps no more impressive display of his musical talents than in the concert that he curated Sunday evening at The JAI in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, his fourth and last appearance at the La Jolla Music Society’s summer festival.

Adès’ performance of Conlon Nancarrow’s jaw-droppingly difficult piano music was testament to his extraordinary musicianship.

In describing the “Three Canons for Ursula,” Adès compared these imitative musical forms to races. The right and left hands play the same material, but at different speeds. Sometimes the left hand crosses the finish line first, and sometimes it’s a dead heat between the different voices.

Adès unassumingly sat down and without fuss proceeded to play the Canons. Amazingly, he sounded like one of Nancarrow’s player pianos on stage, punching out jerky syncopations and polytemporal hijinks.

The concert was bookended by the Calder Quartet performing Adès’ two string quartets: “Arcadiana” (1994) and “The Four Quarters” (2011). “Arcadiana” can be heard as seven character pieces which evoke barcarolles, a sinister tango, Ravel, Mozart, and Schubert. These are not mere pastiches, but rather reconceived in the harmonic, timbral, and rhythmic idiom of a late 20th century composer.

“The Four Quarters” is more focused, doing more with less. Its compositional techniques are paradoxically plain yet hidden from many listeners. Astute observers may see a 12-tone row in the score, but who’s writing 12-tone music in 2011? One can imagine the plucked strings in the second movement, “Morning Dew” as drops falling from leaves. The third movement, “Days,” starts with three different rhythmic layers, each operating according to their own proportions, and “The Twenty-Fifth Hour” progresses asymmetrically over 25-beat-long measures. As in most recent Adès works, there’s a lot more going on there than meets the ear.

The Calder Quartet played Adès with an authority that belied the technical problems they had to surmount to play so confidently.

The Four Berceuses from “The Exterminating Angel” for clarinet, viola and piano was the highlight of the evening. These instrumental arrangements from Adès’ most recent opera were billed as the U.S premiere, but L.A.’s Jacaranda music series did the first U.S. performance in March.

“The Exterminating Angel” is based on the film by Luis Buñuel. A “berceuse” is a lullaby, and while the first one refers to young lovers falling asleep in each other’s arms, the rest of the berceuses reference death in the opera. In the last act, those same lovers hate to perish with the other dinner guests trapped in a dining room (sorry, you’ll have to watch the movie to comprehend that), so they slip away into a closet, inviting death to “enter through our feet.” (Spoiler alert: it does).

The third berceuse is from a late scene where one of the guests attempts a magic ritual and fails, demanding the slaughter of an innocent person.

Berceuse in French literally means “rocking song,” and that is just what happens in the opera’s final berceuse, except the soprano is not rocking a baby in her arms, but rather a dead lamb. It’s gruesome stuff; the lack of program notes on Sunday did no justice to how perversely this sweet-sounding music underscores the grotesquerie onstage.

It was sensitively performed by violist Itsuki Yamamoto and clarinetist Mark Simpson, with Adès on piano.

Simpson also appeared as a composer; his “Love(escape)” for clarinet and piano alternated subdued, slow music with frenetic high notes and extended techniques. It was a brief emotional roller-coaster ride, played well by Simpson and pianist and SummerFest music director Inon Barnatan.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.