"If a hoary critic seems to be writing in the vein of a modern publicist," Andrew Porter wrote in the program notes to an early recording of Thomas Ades' music, it is because "young Ades, like Purcell and Britten, without repeating himself, has freshened and revitalized the mainsprings of modern music." That disc, which opens with the whimsical "Living Toys" and the wistful string quartet "Arcadiana," is 10 years old, and Ades is now 37.
"Living Toys" and "Arcadiana," composed when Ades was in his early 20s and seemingly the brightest kid in Britain, made up the first part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella program at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night. The second half was devoted to the U.S. premiere of his latest work, "In Seven Days," a co-commission by the Philharmonic and the Southbank Centre in London, where it was given its first performance last month.
The new piece, which is subtitled "A Piano Concerto With Moving Image," is a dazzling collaboration between Ades and his life partner, Tal Rosner, an Israeli-born video artist. How might another critic steer clear of publicist temptations?
Well, "In Seven Days" isn't much of a piano concerto. Nicolas Hodges was the exciting soloist, but the orchestral writing was so spectacular that he became mostly part of the mix. And spellbinding as was Rosner's abstract imagery, presented on six screens, he now and then fell victim to the music and mimicked it too closely.
But then Rosner has merely succumbed to the same temptation that many of us find increasingly hard to resist. Full of the life of our own times yet so rooted in the past that it feels like family, Ades' music operates on so many different parts of the brain at once that it overpowers critical faculties.
Brightly bopping scores tickle the pleasure centers. Ingenious counterpoint stimulates the logic-leaning synapses of the left brain. Musical fantasy and illogic mess with the right brain. By this point, who has a enough gray matter left for anything else?
If Ades, also a talented pianist and conductor (he led the performances of "Living Toys" and "In Seven Days"), is known for any one thing, it is for not being known for any one thing. "In Seven Days" occupies a more mature space than the earlier works. But the freshness has not grown stale.
"Living Toys" is a hero's life for nerds. Goofy music accompanies a childhood fantasy of fighting bulls, sashaying with angels, dying a champion. The chamber ensemble channels Janacek here and there, yet its silly sounds resemble no other music. The performance with the Philharmonic's New Music Group was sensational.
The Calder Quartet played "Arcadiana," which reimagines olden times. The players limn something Elgar-like, float into old paintings, wander just this side of Ades' beloved Couperin, dip their toes into "The Magic Flute" and late Beethoven.
The accomplishment here, though, is that the music feels modern, the old world as contemporary dream. The Calder, which has just recorded it, grows ever more ravishing.
"In Seven Days" is a sort of ode to Disney Hall and the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall. Rosner shot imagery at both places but, after computer manipulation, little if anything other than the water of the Thames is recognizable. The score, which Ades and Rosner describe as "a video-ballet," follows the story of the Creation. Not too much of that is recognizable either.
Day One is chaos. Day Seven is contemplation. We begin with dappled river current and can maybe imagine the creation of the seas and land, the sun and stars, life, us. Blue in the video kaleidoscope is, I think, the sky; green, the Earth.
The music is full of wonder. The sections of a sizable chamber ensemble get workouts. Piano and percussion are full of pointillist glitter. Horns erupt into an explosion that, tied to the video, updates "2001." Did I also catch a hint of "Star Wars" in the brass and "E.T." calling home in the winds?
Crazy fugues ricochet. The colors amaze. One listens and looks with delight for half an hour. People left the hall with smiles on their faces. Ades will return next season.