Thomas Adès studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama with Paul Berkowitz (piano) and Robert Saxton (composition) and then read Music at King’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1992. Two years earlier he had already written his Five Eliot Landscapes, a remarkable Op. 1 that at once relates to the traditional medium of voice and piano and spectacularly transcends it (the song-cycles of Messiaen are perhaps the only discernible precedent). In 1993 Adès’s Park Lane Group recital at the Purcell Room, in particular his Still Sorrowing for prepared piano, brought instant metropolitan acclaim and the effective start of a triple international career as composer, pianist and conductor.
Adès’s response to this meteoric early rise was to explore a number of different areas of style and tone alongside the glittering, intricate, sonically alluring idiom that announced itself so strikingly in the Five Eliot Landscapes. Traced Overhead (1996) for solo piano is another major example of Adès’s flair for exotic instrumental sonority, articulated in cascading figuration and complex metres. Yet by then the same composer had also written, among much else, the quirkily roguish Under Hamelin Hill (1992), for a chamber organ whose main player is intermittently joined by another two; Life Story (1993–4), a wry and bleak setting of Tennessee Williams’s verse evocation of post-coital ennui; Living Toys (1993), a brilliant study in the brisk, incisive idiom associated with the London Sinfonietta; and a Sonata da caccia (1993) for Baroque oboe, horn and harpsichord, written in tribute to one of Adès’s favourite composers, Couperin.
This wide stylistic reach was drawn together in Adès’s first opera, Powder Her Face, an outwardly contentious, inwardly sombre portrait of the later lifestyle of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, after her sensational divorce in 1963. While the work’s succès de scandale at the 1995 Cheltenham Festival and subsequently elsewhere related to the sexual element of Philip Hensher’s libretto, the commanding assurance and magpie virtuosity of Adès’s score were both unmistakable. Next came two orchestral tours de force in the shape of These Premises Are Alarmed (1996) and the much larger Asyla (1997).
In 1999 a commission from the New York Philharmonic brought forth America: A Prophecy, a powerful and far from millennially optimistic setting of a South American Mayan text for mezzo-soprano, large orchestra and optional large chorus.
The major project of the next few years was a full-length opera, The Tempest, commissioned by the Royal Opera House, premiered there in February 2004 and revived in 2007. Setting a libretto by Meredith Oakes based on Shakespeare’s play, and conducted by Adès himself, the opera was received with huge acclaim. Tevot received its UK premiere at the Barbican’s retrospective, ‘Traced Overhead’, last spring, and Adès’s multimedia piano concerto In Seven Days (a collaboration with video artist Tal Rosner) was premiered in April. A pianist of rare gifts that are regularly at the disposal of music besides his own, In 2009 Adès relinquished his role as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival.
Profile © Malcolm Hayes