Thomas Adès: photo by Maurice Foxall

Both the San Francisco Symphony and Cal Performances presented concerts this weekend featuring the music of Thomas Adès, as composer and performer, and the results were splendid on both counts. After leaving Hardly Strictly Bluegrass early Friday evening (missing the last half of Robert Plant's pleasing, surprising set) I rode over to Davies to meet Axel Feldheim, whom I found sitting patiently in the Grove Street lobby reading the program notes. Scheduled along with the premiere of Adès' Polaris was Mozart's Haffner Symphony in D major (No. 35, K.385) and Stravinsky's Petrushka. A lack of connecting threads between the pieces didn't prevent the concert from being a memorable one.

If you've read this blog awhile you may remember that I'm not a huge fan of Mozart's music. That's not to say I dislike it in anyway (that would be ridiculous- akin to saying one dislikes a blue sky) but his symphonies and operas mostly leave me indifferent. Aside from Cosi, the Jupiter, and the piano concertos, I wouldn't make much of an effort to hear it. For me Mozart is mostly background music- something to listen to when I want to hear pleasant music which doesn't distract, require much attention or any direct engagement, like when I'm cooking breakfast on a Sunday morning. That's heresy to most people but it's where I stand. However, this didn't prevent me from enjoying an exceptionally lush treatment of the Haffner under MTT's fluttering hands, which I truly enjoyed but realized while it was unfolding the reason I'm indifferent to Mozart is because his music just doesn't pull me in emotionally. Mystery solved.

Composed in 2010 on commission from the New World Symphony (and other orchestras) to be the premiere work at their new Frank Gehry-designed hall, Polaris features music by Adès accompanied by Tal Rosner's video. Rosner's imagery reminded me too much of Bill Viola's work for The Tristan Project and I found myself distracted by the extremely large feet of one of the two women who roam about a deserted English seashore, apparently waiting for their men to return, or perhaps they're beckoning sirens. Shown on a three-panel screen as a triptych, it probably had a greater impact in the Gehry hall for which it was conceived. After a few minutes I stopped watching it, my attention absorbed by the music, though I did notice the conclusion was well choreographed with the music- both stopped suddenly in a final moment.

Adès' music for Polaris was truly something special and I'm pleased there were many microphones set about the stage to capture it all. The brass were staggered in the terrace seats above the stage, grouped by instruments, four trumpets on the far left, tuba far right, three trombones flanked by low and high horns in the center, while the stage held an enormous group of musicians. The title refers to the North Star, and the music bears a relation to how the sea is moved by its relationship to the stars. Beginning quietly, the work's three sections build to a tremendous climax only to subside again into murmuring bubbles before becoming another swell of sound in which everything seems to drown in extraordinarily complex precision. The program notes mention the instruments always play in canon and I tried to follow this but soon lost my was as MTT created thrilling crescendos in which the brass just exploded within the melodic score, rendering my attempt to follow the intricacies a pointless exercise on an initial hearing. It's only a fourteen minute work and when it was over I wanted more of it. Or at least a repeat of what we had just heard.

The concert concluded with a terrific performance of Stravinsky's Petrushka, with MTT and the orchestra giving an almost delirious account of its many delights. Having not heard it in years, I'd forgotten how much I like the music of this ballet score. Flutist Tim Day and first trumpet Mark Inouye had especially fine moments, but what struck me was how the orchestra appears to be playing at an entirely new level during this Centennial Season. For the third time in as many weeks, I can say I've never heard them sound this good. 

On Sunday over at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, Adès performed with the Calder Quartet. We arrived late and missed the opening piece, Stravinsky's Three pieces for String Quartet, but took seats in the gallery as Adès performed his own Mazurkas for Piano. Mazurkas always remind me of Chopin of course, but I couldn't detect any strains of it in Adès' piece, though I was quickly absorbed by the work's complexity- Adès played with a score, which I found interestingly strange. Still, with our late arrival it took a few minutes to mentally shift gears and pay close attention to what he was playing. It was only then I noticed how delicately Adès performs.

The Calder Quartet returned to the stage to perform Adès' seven-part Arcadiana. The sections alternate between evocations of water and land, creating a sense of Arcadia lost. Complex and challenging, the Calders performed it with an impressive precision. 

Adès returned after the intermission for what turned out to be the afternoon's highlight, Liszt's Petrarch Sonnet No. 123. His pedal work brought out odd, dark tones in the piece (performed without a score) and the delicacy he exhibited in the Mazurkas took on an even greater depth here with its much softer passages. The final note was the softest thing I think I've ever heard. It was a completely unassuming performance, yet masterful.

The next piece brought the Calder Quartet back for Adès' The Four Quarters. The first two movements in end a similar, perhaps identical, exciting swoosh of a climax- a composing trick that might have come across as gimmicky is less-sure hands, played with perfection by the quartet. There are some more unusual touches- the second movement is almost entirely played in furious pizzicato and the last movement is in 25/16 time, which is rather difficult to follow- you just have to roll with it.
The concluding work was Adès' Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, Op. 20- a fascinating 20 minutes that reaches back to late Beethoven for inspiration. Adès starts breaking down the walls of what the listener expects to hear as he pushes out the boundaries of the format. There was a long exposition section for the piano that traveled pretty far afield before returning to a point that seemed inevitable if never obvious. Adès literally pounded the keys of the piano with the force of a hard rock drummer in opposition to the strings during this section and the effect was startling and thrilling. All five musicians seemed incredibly in-sync with one another throughout the complex work, playing competing themes which only merged together toward the conclusion, but not in any tidy way. It was an appropriate conclusion to an afternoon of wickedly cerebral yet accessible music, played with heart.

On Friday night Axel and I talked with Lisa Hirsch during the intermission and when I told her I had heard little of his work (somehow forgetting this performance completely) she listed a couple of works she really liked and kept on going before finally recommending that one should just "get everything." I'm starting to think that's some pretty decent advice.