The Fierce Rise of a Young Composer

Justin Davidson is the chief classical and culture writer at large of Newsday

Thomas Ades, a looming young man with bulky shoulders, a rumbling voice and a large, brooding face, belongs to a category long thought to have become extinct. He is a famous composer of concert music. The situation seems to strike him as either grave or hilarious. He goes around wearing a supercilious frown that looks as if at any moment it might crack into a guffaw.

Size and seriousness, and that undercurrent of hilarity, characterize his music too. “Asyla,” for example--the wild, panoramic symphony Simon Rattle and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform at the Ojai Music Festival on Friday--contains a movement subtitled “Ecstasio,” a multiple reference to rapturous exertion, the frenzied intricacies of trance pop and to ecstasy, the chic drug of the ‘90s. It begins with the strings suspended in the shimmering regions of wind chimes and ozone, then a limping rhythmic figure picks up speed and intensity until it replicates on an orchestral scale the sonic assault and psychedelic seething of an urban dance club.

What startles the ear is the composer’s personality, which is sophisticated, truculent, theatrical and brash. Or perhaps that is only the score’s personality; Ades, mistrustful of interviews and public appearances, has taken care to present himself as inscrutable.

The festival will showcase him, along with his fellow British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, as representative of a remarkable renaissance. Britain, a land that the international musical community once happily condescended to, has lately been experiencing an astonishing ferment of composing talent. Ades and Turnage--and Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Julian Anderson and Judith Weir, among others--are the creators; Rattle, the great promoter.


As head of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for 17 years, Rattle turned a backwater into a musical hub, thanks in part to his championship of British composers. Turnage’s “Momentum” helped inaugurate the orchestra’s new hall in 1991. Ades’ “Asyla” helped mark the end of Rattle’s tenure there in 1998.

Ades, who is 29, comes from an intellectually well-nourished background. His father is a translator, his mother is scholar of Surrealist art Dawn Ades, and he was still a student at Cambridge when he became a high-art celebrity. He was first noticed in 1990 and by 1995 was a featured composer at the Aldeburgh Festival. A few years after that, he became the festival’s artistic director. Since then, the beat of falling laurels has been getting louder and faster.

Commissions have come from London’s Royal Opera, Rattle’s Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. He has been named professor at the Royal Academy of Music and music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. EMI has released four all-Ades CDs, with a fifth disc coming in the fall. Late last year, “Asyla” won the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award.

It’s difficult to imagine that Ades’ trajectory would have been anywhere near as dramatic had he happened to be born in the U.S., where the last truly famous composer of concert music was Aaron Copland. But such things can happen in Britain. There, the insider enthusiasms of a clubby music world get ventilated by a nationalistic and hyperbolic press.


“There are eight papers in London, plus the BBC and Classic FM [radio],” says Jessica Lustig, a New York-based manager who handles young composers. “The media are centralized, so there’s the opportunity to create a consensus. Here, if someone has a success in a concert in L.A., there’s no guarantee that the intelligentsia in New York will even find out about it.”

Ades’ first professional visit to New York--to play on a concert of British chamber music sponsored by the New York Philharmonic in the spring of 1998--was a small affair, but it was unmistakably an event. His opera “Powder Her Face” had already been given in Aspen, Colo., and the Minneapolis Symphony had performed “Asyla,” so the hall was filled with music world insiders who had heard more about Ades than they had heard of his music.

A ferociously gifted pianist with a penchant for outlandishness, Ades packed his shot-putter’s frame into an Oscar Wilde tail coat and set off his heavy jaw with a white foulard. He bowed solemnly, then plunged into “Traced Overhead,” a solo piano piece that rises explosively into the ether like a Roman candle and releases a shower of sparkling notes. Next, he played “Concerto Conciso,” a piano concerto with chamber ensemble that combines the barreling rhythmic discipline and piercing precision of Stravinsky and Bartok with a sweaty abandon reminiscent of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis or of maverick American keyboard-bangers of the 1940s like Henry Cowell or Carl Ruggles.

Instantly, it was clear that with his mercurial imagination and phenomenal technique, Ades could careen merrily between erudition and burlesque. His debut CD included “Sonata da Caccia,” a mournful double homage to Debussy and Couperin, scored for baroque oboe, horn and harpsichord. But the title track was “Life Story,” a slinky, bluesy song of tawdry motel-room love with a text by Tennessee Williams and a vocal line that curls and stings like cigarette smoke.


Perhaps the most efficient way to make the acquaintance of Ades is to listen to the compact little overture from “Powder Her Face,” which examines the decadence and decay of an aging, randy duchess. This is the caustic and funny chamber opera that from its first performances in Britain in 1995 turned the young composer from a local star into a worldwide sensation. Into these three minutes of music are telescoped the opera’s constellation of themes: exhausted sex, flaking glitter, bitter nostalgia, acrid humor.

The overture begins with a biting cabaret orchestra vamping over a galloping high-hat, then breaking into a snarling, twisted tango. Strings slide between notes like loopy ice skaters, the beat staggers drunkenly, caustic chords wail and yelp, and a small-voiced accordion gives the whole weird scene a strangely sentimental feel. Ades toys with familiar gestures and recognizable emotions, but he rearranges them.

He manipulates the dramatic materials of Modernist music--skittering dissonances, sudden mutterings, instruments communicating across abysses of register, like a whistling piccolo and a growling tuba. But Modernism, especially in its postwar heyday, was meant to be a purifying force, an almost religious attempt to re-invent musical logic from the inside. Ades’ music, by contrast, is lavishly profane and frankly inconsistent.


Ades builds his pieces the way a mouse makes a nest, by shredding everything that appeals to him, then putting each found scrap to an expedient use. That in itself is not novel. The late 20th century has seen the rise of ever more eclectic and eccentric concoctions of exotic instruments, cartoon music, hip-hop rhythms, jazz sonorities, assorted religious and historical allusions. What unifies this garage sale’s worth of references has generally been irony, the unspoken agreement that originality is a dated idea.

Decades before the attitude acquired the respectability of an academic label--Postmodernism--Shostakovich and Kurt Weill had mastered the sardonic mode, and echoes of their language rattle through Ades’ scores. Like them, he frequently intensifies irony into fierce wit. His passion for incongruity can be quite cruel, nowhere more so than in “Powder Her Face.”

It is scored for four singers and an idiosyncratically distributed orchestra of 20, which includes more clarinets and saxophones than violins, and also a whole school of fishing reels. With these motley and versatile forces--three singers divide 16 roles--Ades recounts sensational scenes from the life of the Duchess of Argyll (she is unnamed in the opera), whose collection of sexual experiences was documented and made public during her divorce trial in the 1950s.

“Powder Her Face” takes a shotgun approach to satire, skewering not just the pathetic duchess but also her flaccid, equally faithless husband; an empty-headed fashion journalist who comes to interview the duchess about cold cream and gets a tirade on modern degradation; a pair of sniffing matrons at the trial; a brace of indolent, gossiping socialites; and a stiff but sexually accommodating waiter in a classy hotel.

As a composer, Ades partakes of the duchess’ magnificent extravagance. Even slow passages have a kind of darting restlessness. His music is often aphoristic, setting a scene with a quick instrumental interlude, but his virtuosity with the vignette is complemented by the dexterity with which he handles an extended scene. The judge at the duchess’ trial hands down his sentence in a long monologue that is a mixture of solemnity, shock and excitement. He cries for order in long, majestic tones and, having succeeded in quieting the tumult in the orchestra, he begins gradually to lose both his composure and his voice. He winds up with a voiceless croak, horrified by his own titillation.

“Powder Her Face” was a staggering achievement for a 24-year-old’s first stab at opera.

Even as his tabloid parable was speeding around the world, Ades was acquiring a reputation. For his reluctance to give interviews, the press anointed him music’s bad boy. He may be protecting himself from his own intemperate opinions. As he nursed a beer in a bar near Lincoln Center some 18 months ago, a Bach cello suite came over the stereo in a recent and recognizable recording, and Ades grimaced. “Yo-Yo Ma,” he snorted derisively. “God!”

Hardly a diplomatic comment for someone who depends on performers’ goodwill.


He also has demonstrated a mild talent for other forms of rudeness. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to contribute a short work for a late 1999 evening of philosophical world premieres called “Millennium Messages,” Ades produced “America (A Prophecy),” a harsh and massive choral cantata about the evil and desperation that gave birth to white America, told in a bitter Mayan text. “Weep, but know this well: ash feels no pain,” the singer threatens in throaty low notes before the piece closes with great, grumbling chords.

Ades refused to participate in a public pre-concert discussion with other composers, the Philharmonic played the work badly, and, after the premiere, instead of taking an onstage bow, the composer made a getaway, marching quickly up the aisle in a black leather jacket.

But these are piddling sins, perhaps, of anxiety, arrogance or youth. The worst that critics have been willing to say about his music is that he is not, in fact, the best British composer since Benjamin Britten.

He might be relieved at that evaluation. Britten’s mantle can be a crushing one, it seems. It fell first on the shoulders of Knussen in the 1970s, then on George Benjamin’s in the ‘80s, and both became spectacularly unproductive as composers. Knussen now works predominantly as a conductor and Benjamin, after a long fallow period, has begun releasing brief, finely crafted scores at an unhurried pace.


Many people in the music world fear that Ades might crash. His scores sometimes even seem to hint at the same fear, with their apocalyptic stirrings and attempts to pick a way through chaos.

There is something frightening about his mix of the primeval and the urbane, of confidence and uncertainty, of darkness and wild exuberance. But then, those are the contradictions of the age, and if Ades has found an eager audience for his demanding paradoxes, it may be because his music sounds so timely in its refusal to be pat. Ades may yet corral himself--limit his resources and settle down to polishing what he has done before. For now, though, he seems to start from scratch with every piece. The past decade’s worth of work, taken as a whole, resembles the output of a whole consortium of brilliant composers who share not so much a style as a sensibility and an uncanny ability to make music that is visceral and intellectual at the same time.


British Invasion

Ades’ countryman Mark-Anthony Turnage will also be a presence at Ojai. Page 76


Ojai Festival 2000 Highlights


5:30 p.m. Sundowner chamber concerts by CalArts Strings, playing music by Benjamin Britten, George Benjamin, Phillipe Manoury and Michael Tippett. Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai. $10.


8:15 p.m. Simon Rattle conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and various soloists in “Kai” by Mark-Anthony Turnage; “Asyla” by Thomas Ades and “L’Enfant et les Sortileges” by Ravel. Libbey Bowl. $15-$65.


2:30 p.m. Gloria Cheng, piano recital, music by Olivier Messiaen, Ades, Tristan Murail, Ravel, Benjamin, Judith Weir, Pierre Boulez, Jonathan Harvey. Libbey Bowl. $15-$55.

8:30 p.m. Simon Rattle conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, with Peter Erskine, percussion; Mike Miller, guitar; Martin Robertson, saxophone; Vicki Ray, piano, in “Deluge” by Naomi Sekiya and “Blood on the Floor” by Turnage. Libbey Bowl. $15-$65.


11 a.m. The Flux Quartet, Libbey Bowl. $15-$55.

5:30 p.m. Simon Rattle conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloists in “These Premises Are Alarmed” by Ades; Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from “Peter Grimes” by Britten; “Les Mamelles de Tiresias” by Francis Poulenc. Libbey Bowl. $15-$65.

* Information, tickets: (805) 646-2053.