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Review: Adès Conducts Adès and Tetzlaff Is ‘Heart-Stopping’ in Sibelius with the BSO at Tanglewood

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, July 24, 2018

I have heard it said that composers should never conduct their own music. Nonetheless, I’ve always envied those that got to see great composers like Stravinsky and Copland conduct their own music, even if their conducting skills were wanting. The opportunity to hear Thomas Adès, one of today’s greatest composers, conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his Suite from Powder Her Face at Tanglewood, was irresistible, especially since it was followed by Sibelius’s unique Violin Concerto and Sibelius’s magnificent Fifth Symphony.

Adès’s instrumental suite of music from his first opera, Powder Her Face, composed in 1995, is a rip-roaring showpiece for the orchestra and a grand introduction to his compositional flair. The opera is scored for small chamber orchestra, but for the suite, Adès expands his vision to large symphonic forces, in writing that is always clever and impactful.

Adès conducts with vigor, as the piece opens with a shocking, jazzy overture, brimming with popular song and dance flavors, but distorted and wrenched. Long arced melodies are always on the move through the orchestra — a tune begins in one instrument, to be slyly taken over by another, then another. The second movement, Scene with Song, sounds like a Hollywood score on steroids, and Adès commanded the drama with detailed characterization. The BSO’s saxophonists excelled especially in their intricate, tricky feature. In the ironically despondent Wedding March, the orchestra wails and moans.

The piece’s finale is refreshingly light, given the forcefulness of the overture, but Adès conducts strenuously, addressing with verve every entrance he can muster, arms high in the air with extravagant amounts of momentum. He leans much on dynamics, and the contrasts between loud and soft were extreme.

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff with Thomas Adès conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra; photo: Hilary Scott.

Christian Tetzlaff, an extraordinary violinist from Germany, joined as soloist in Sibelius’s unusual Violin Concerto. This concerto from 1905, treats soloist and orchestra as opposing forces, and Tetzlaff was the undisputed winner of this round, with a lusty sound, rhythmic veracity, and a clear point of view about the shape of the piece, deeply rooted in emotion. Atop a barely audible shimmering in the strings, the fiddle’s first entrance was as musky and sweet as honey, and after a riveting, flawlessly executed cadenza, Tetzlaff continues with a restatement of the opening theme, played solely on the G (lowest) string with a song-like expression as sultry as the saxophones in Powder Her Face.

The concerto’s second movement is a gem, with a rich, poignant melody that recalls Beethoven, or Brahms. Tetzlaff poured his heart out in this Adagio di Molto, the very definition of sonoro ed espressivo, and Adès accompanied shrewdly. This was the afternoon’s most polished, fully realized movement. In the raucus third movement, Tetzlaff tackled the violin parts endless pyrotechnics with electricity, and the final build-up, which largely rests on the soloist’s back, was heart-stopping.

Adès does not use as much shorthand as many conductors do, and I wished that he had let the orchestra soar on their own accord a bit more in the Fifth Symphony. But the performance was well-plotted, and succeeded in peaking in the right places. The first movement, a remarkable metamorphosis from a resplendent rising theme with a florid tail, like the arrival of a comet, into a dancing scherzo, shone with crystal clear playing from the musicians, and careful architecture from the podium.

Sibelius is a master of suspense, as in the Andante Mosso, from its mysterious, questioning beginning to the insistent, piercing yearning tones in the woodwinds that infest the movement, and the BSO woodwind section fearlessly wielded these utterances like knives. The symphony’s finale is incomparably wonderful, and the horns did a marvelous job with the majestic “swan theme,” the strings glowed darkly, succumbing to gravity in the earthy slowing up that ushers in the piece’s last statement of the gliding long melody that accompanies the undulating horn chords. The piece ends, ever so suspensefully, with four sharp, distinct, chords, that Adès dispatched with great thrust and satisfaction.


The Boston Symphony in concert at Tanglewood, Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, MA on July 22, 2018. Boston Symphony Orchestra: Thomas Adès, conductor; Christian Tetzlaff, violin

Thomas ADÈS Suite from Powder Her Face

SIBELIUS Violin Concerto

SIBELIUS Symphony No. 5


Cover: Thomas Adès conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra; photo: Hilary Scott.


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