TRIPLE THREAT Thomas Ades -- composer, conductor, pianist -- took over the Walt Disney Concert Hall in February when he began a two-part residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The second half of that residency, extending beyond Disney and the Philharmonic's reach, began last month with a student performance of his hit opera, the R-rated (for explicit depictions of sexuality while singing) "Powder Her Face" at USC, and ended Sunday with Ades conducting the Philharmonic in his hit orchestra score, "Asyla."
But with Los Angeles eager to keep the young British composer around a bit longer, and Ades, apparently, eager to be kept, he stayed on a couple more days to make a guest appearance in a Piano Spheres recital at Zipper Concert Hall. The program was eccentric, including several quirky, dreamlike, slightly crazy miniatures.
For the first half, he began with five sketchy Janacek scores from early, middle and very late in the Czech composer's career. He continued with Janacek's shimmering suite "In the Midst" and ended the first half with two of his own early works, "Darknesse Visible" and "Traced Overhead." After intermission, Ades explored an idiosyncratic piano travelogue by the late avant-garde Italian composer and pedagogue, Niccolo Castiglioni, as well as offbeat Stravinsky and Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano-inspired, rhythmically-next-to-impossible "Three Canons for Ursula."
These are works that Ades has been playing for some time (many are on an EMI recital disc released in 2000) and quite a few have the quality of party pieces. But with a Berlin Philharmonic premiere of a major new orchestra work soon as well as festivals of his music in London and Paris early next year, Ades can hardly be expected to be learning new repertory. And who else plays such uncharacteristic and obscure Stravinsky as the Germanic ditty "Souvenir d'une Marche Boche," or the Frenchified "Valse pour les Enfants"?
In much of this program, Ades seemed to be interested in the ways composers catch a listener off guard. Castiglioni's eight-minute, 10-movement "How I Spent the Summer" begins with a startling ragtime and only sounds a little more characteristic during a musical description of ice, in which, after gleaming chords ring out loud and long, overtones slowly melt away over time.
The important works were Ades' own. "Darknesse Visible," from 1992, is a John Dowland song from the Renaissance mussed up with lacy tremolo passages and interrupted by punchy loud outbursts. "Traced Overhead," written four years later, is a Romantic flight of filigree fancy, all the keyboard used at once in glittery brilliance.
ALTHOUGH Ades' technique is big and bold, he loves misty sounds, especially in his own music. Oddly enough, though, Janacek's "In the Mist" was unusually (and maybe overly) dramatic. Still, Ades' musical range can be large and expressive, and elsewhere on the program he exhibited both a boyish sense of humor and an adult sense of irony.
He is even a master of the Chico Marx one-finger technique, which he used on one of Nancarrow's canons. Those canons are composed of erratic rhythms that must be maintained in jerky, mathematically complex meter ratios. They are hard enough for the ear to follow. How the fingers can manipulate them is a wonder. Ades' dazzling performance left one's head spinning in the best, most exhilarating sense.
The encore was Janacek's "The Golden Ring." It was said to be written as he lay dying, his final music. It lasted 10 seconds, gone before you knew it. This is not so much music as the spirit of music.
So if earlier Nancarrow had produced a music of the spheres, if Castiglioni had paraded a music of fun and games, or Ades had traced the past in the present, Janacek here simply vanished. But he left traces. And Ades has left traces. May he return soon and often.