Adés Raises Baton for Shakespeare

In 1827, the young composer Hector Berlioz attended performances of several plays by William Shakespeare on the Parisian Left Bank. The Bard’s artistry left an indelible mark on him; in his autobiography, “Mémoires,” he compares the experience to being struck by a thunderbolt. Shakespeare’s enormous musical influence was celebrated in the last of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) “Underscore Fridays”—a new, more casual BSO series that allows concertgoers to hear from the conductor directly and socialize after the performance by having an early 7 p.m. start time. Drawing on pieces inspired by “The Tempest,” the BSO gave their already formidable classical line-up an extra charge with the presence of conductor-composer Thomas Adés, who contributed two of the four selected works.

The result of these musical selections is a kind of “Tempest Greatest Hits,” throwing together Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasia after Shakespeare, Op. 18” and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ “Prelude” (Op. 109, No. 1) and “Suite No. 1” (Opus 109, No. 2) from “The Tempest,” his incidental music to a Danish production of the play. Adés, a forceful and thrillingly talented young British composer, arranged the program himself. The result is a classical music blockbuster, high on energy and entertainment but occasionally lacking in the nuance and subtlety that marks Shakespeare’s text.

Tchaikovsky and Sibelius relish the opportunity to evoke the storm section of the play through their music. Both feature suitable bombast and panic, but while Tchaikovsky’s version builds more slowly, opening with lush passages reminiscent of the beginning of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” Sibelius nails more accurately the feeling of being caught in a violent storm at sea. The rapid rise and fall of the brass and strings perfectly capture the nausea and panic of Shakespeare’s sailors and the swelling of titanic waves. The works are challenging, but the orchestra responded excellently with tightness and precision. The percussion section was especially effective, and came into its own during these storm sequences.

In the short selections provided, neither composer fully suggests the magic and eeriness of Prospero’s enchanted island. However, Adés does present a lovely personification of the sprite Ariel in the Tchaikovsky, and the difficult and rapidly skittering violins were held together well by the string section. Overall, however, Adés’ rendition of the Sibelius was more effective, the sweeping passages and depth of the orchestra punctuated by occasional martial undertones; the percussion in particular provided a deep, frightening sonic boom during these sequences. Often dismissed during his lifetime and through most of the 20th century, Sibelius’ moment may be coming. He has been underrated for far too long, and Adés’ choice to feature him on the program is representative of a larger revisionist trend to recognize his massive contribution to modern classical music. That the orchestra featured his work so confidently is a gesture of this new respect.

Adés’ own contributions, however, do not suffer in comparison. His first work, a violin concerto entitled “Concentric Paths,” (Op. 23, 2005) featured acclaimed violinist Anthony Marwood, who brought forth Adés’ work with great brio. The piece has a fantastic alien weirdness that recalls early electronic music, and the high-pitched whine of the violins bring to mind the processed beats and bleeps of moog synthesizers and popular musicians like Aphex Twin. The third movement of the concerto, “Rounds,” has an almost Morricone-like quality, with an ostensibly lighter tone than the movements that preceded it but a pronounced undercurrent of menace.

Although not explicitly inspired by “The Tempest,” Adés’ decision to include “Concentric Paths” is understood in light of his second contribution—selected scenes from his 2004 opera “The Tempest”—that concluded the evening. The same eccentric flair that was so affecting in “Concentric Paths” is echoed to marvelous effect in capturing the essence of the island’s magic. Adés’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s famous “Full Fathom Five” song is breathtaking, a high-pitched call seemingly from the very depths of the sea that perfectly captures the playwright’s evocation of the “rich and strange.” Sadly, this moment was all too brief, and the rest of the selections from Adés’ opera seem rather more conventional.

In terms of thrills and entertainment, therefore, Adés has delivered superbly, but his musical selections did not fully allow us a more complete look into the nuances of some of these pieces and of Shakespeare’s text. Significant parts of “The Tempest” are missing from this program–Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo feature only in brief allusions, and the selections seemed to concentrate too closely on the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda, who form arguably the least interesting relationship in the original text. The comparison between different composers’ musical renditions was interesting, but there is so much more in Tchaikovsky and Sibelius that Adés could have showcased. With this in mind, perhaps the concert did not feel as varied and multi-faceted as it could have been. Nevertheless, this was an inspirational conclusion to a laudable and innovative series of concerts by the BSO.