Adès’ music highlights City of Birmingham Symphony program at Carnegie

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

A few years ago, this writer came across a piece called The Lord of the Rings Symphony, which was programmed by quite a few orchestras across the country. Composer Howard Shore had put together some of the pieces he had written for these films, but the result was not really what one would call a symphony. It could have been called The Lord of the Rings Original Soundtrack Album, if there wasn’t already something called that.

There was a sense of deja vu at the New York premiere of Thomas Adės The Exterminating Angel Symphony kicked off at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night, in what Britons might call a smash performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its principal guest conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

One by one, the sets for Adės’ 2017 opera based on Buñuel’s classic surreal film “Entrance” appeared, featuring the doomed socialites in Act I; “March,” the fiercely sardonic interlude after their party goes suspiciously wrong; “Lullaby”, a rare moment of tenderness in a love duet. Despite their sinister sheen, the three sounded like what they were – transitional music, not symphonic moves.

The final movement, “Waltzes,” was a different animal: “something utterly original,” as the composer puts it, concocted from “waltz fragments that surface throughout the score.” He didn’t go on to say he updated Ravel’s book The waltz a hundred years old, but that was the effect of this striking composition, with its mixture of nostalgia, tenderness, irony and a sense of doom. So, at the end, this opera suite had a satisfying symphonic finale to justify its title.

Gražinytė-Tyla, who at 36 recently left the musical direction of this launch pad for future notables – his predecessors were Simon Rattle and Andris Nelsons – was attentive to all the moods of Adès’ score, from drag-them -down-to-hell from the chromatics of “Entrance” to the Shostakovichian crescendos driven by the snare drum of “March” to the icy fabric of the high flutes and violins of “Lullaby”. A relentless sense of menace ran through the changing moods of “Valses.”

Earlier, the conductor’s distinctive presence on the podium all but eclipsed soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason in the evening’s opening work, Elgar’s Cello Concerto. As rooted and centered as a tree in the wind, Gražinytė-Tyla spoke volumes with her hands and arms, the latter partially exposed by the three-quarter length sleeves of her simple black tunic. It was hard to take your eyes off her fluid but eloquent gestures, especially since the soloist didn’t exactly signal attention.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening. Photo: Chris Lee

Kanneh-Mason’s approach was engaged and insightful, but less showy than one typically encounters with this impassioned and tragic late work. His opening statement was less than a heart cry only a melancholic reflection, and his sound seemed to retreat into the orchestra at times. But as ears settled into his and Gražinytė-Tyla’s conception of the piece, the performance became something of a non-concerto, with the cellist as first among equals in a joint effort.

Which isn’t to say that Kanneh-Mason didn’t shine in the second movement’s scherzando interlude, or come out smart in the march-like finale. This last movement, however, lost some expressive tension, as Gražinytė-Tyla leaned back – literally, against the brass railing of the podium – instead of in the fervent crescendos. (For an encore, Kanneh-Mason and four cellists from the orchestra performed his own sonic arrangement of a Bach chorale, “Come, Sweet Death.”)

She was however on her toes for Debussy The sea, which closed the concert with elementary images that brought a full body response from the conductor. Precise as always in her directions, she also supported the tension of the natural forces of the ocean, which bore fruit in spectacular climaxes as the music grew “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea”.

The second movement, ‘Play of the Waves’, could have been called ‘Play of the Percussion and Woodwinds’, as the orchestral sections have blended to delightful effect, especially in the pianissimo passages, with their bursts of breeze and their projected droplets.

These elements took on vast proportions in the later “Dialogue of Wind and Sea”, whose minor-major motto theme embodied “the sublime”, equally spooky and ecstatic. When she wasn’t summoning towering waves of brass and bass drum, Gražinytė-Tyla was blaring horns under diaphanous strings.

Modestly titled “symphonic sketches” by the composer, The sea emerged as the true symphony of tonight’s program, and Gražinytė-Tyla as the latest star to emerge from CBSO finishing school.

Carnegie Hall presents the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in two programs of works by Ortiz and Mahler (with violinist María Dueñas) and Ortiz, Márquez and Copland (with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers), at 20 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.

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