Composer, pianist, conductor
In less than ten years and while still in his mid-twenties, British pianist and composer Thomas Adès has earned the kind of international prominence usually reserved for the more seasoned performer. Hailed as the natural successor to Great Britain’s Benjamin Britten and compared in terms of his compositional talents to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, Adès has not experienced the struggle for recognition facing other contemporary composers. His music, while at times dissonant, is neither forbiddingly harsh nor overly eclectic; it commands an obvious authority driven by Adès’ confidence and powerful individualism. “Direct, concentrated, sophisticated yet emotional,” wrote Mark Stryker for the Detroit Free Press, “Adès’ music sublimates his eclectic influences—Dowland, Cage, Messiaen, Chopin, Billie Holliday and surely many others lurking deep in his subconscious—to a single compositional voice: That’s an achievement for any composer, but remarkable in one so young.” Whether compared to classical composers or modern day entertainers, Adès, by most critical accounts, possesses both originality and musicality, making him one of the most important young composers of the day.
Beginning with his first public piano recital in 1993 at the Purcell Room in London for the Park Lane Group series, the then 22-year-old Adès not only thrilled the audience with his original style and audacious streak of authority, but also set in motion a chain of events that would lead him to the heart of the British music scene and soon thereafter to worldwide recognition. Through his exuberant compositions and performances, Adès has become known as one of the most brash and sophisticated forces in the classical music community.
Though his work has been widely acclaimed, Adès has remained for the most part unaffected by the accolades and comparisons prompted by his music. Although he welcomes attention from critics and the press, the young composer also mistrusts the media hype, preferring instead to focus on his art rather than others’ perceptions of his music. “Being compared to other composers means nothing to me, “he asserted in a Billboard magazine interview with Basford Hall. “I recently heard some hair-raising examples read to me. But if that’s what people want to write, of course I can’t stop them. When it reaches the pitch of comparing me with Mozart and Beethoven, though, there’s really nothing I can say.”
Born in London, England, in 1971, Adès was raised in an intellectually stimulating environment and displayed his musical talents early in life. His father, whose family came from Alexandria, Egypt, worked as a translator, and his mother, a well-known scholar of Surrealist art named Dawn Adès, spent much of her career employed as an art historian and exhibition organizer. From the moment he started playing the piano, Adès discovered that he had the ability to sight-read music with unusual ease. He began his formal training at the age of 12 after winning acceptance into the Junior Guildhall School of Music where he excelled as a pianist and composer. His first completed piece, a tone poem for piano, was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
Despite his compositional abilities, Adès initially earned greater rewards for his obvious talents as a pianist, and after winning Second Prize (Piano Class) in the 1989 British Broadcasting Company (BBC) Musician of the Year contest, a career as a performer seemed inevitable. By this time, the aspiring musician had studied piano with Paul Berkowitz and composition with Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music, then continued his training in music at King’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honors in 1992.
Interestingly, however, earning the BBC prize triggered a move toward composition, and in 1990, Adès arrived with his first opus entitled Five Eliot Landscapes. Another important composition penned during his Cambridge years included Chamber Symphony, his first piece to be performed professionally. The BBC Philharmonic, under conductor Mathias Bamert, played the symphony in 1993. That same year, Adès accepted a position near Cambridge as Composer in Association to the Halle Orchestra, a stint which lasted until 1995. For the orchestra, Adès wrote The Origin of the Harp in 1994 and These Premises Are Alarmed, a work composed for the opening of the Bridgewater Hall in 1996.
Born in 1971 in London, England; son of a translator (father) and a well-known art scholar, Dawn Adès. Education: Attended Junior Guildhall School of Music; studied piano with Paul Berkowitz and composition with Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music; studied music at King’s College, Cambridge; graduated in 1992.
Chamber Symphony became first work to be performed professionally, 1993; premiered Living Toys, his most performed work, 1994; premiered first opera, Powder Her Face, 1995; premiered first large-scale orchestral work, Asyla, 1997; signed an exclusive recording contract with EMI Classics, 1999.
Awards: Second Prize (Piano Class), BBC Musician of the Year contest, 1989; the Paris Rostrum for the best piece by a composer under 30, 1994; Royal Philharmonic Society prize for Asyla, 1997; the Elise L. Stoeger Prize for Arcadiana (New York), 1998; the Salzburg Easter Festival Prize, 1999; and the Munich Ernst von Siemens Prize for Young Composers, 1999; Mercury Music Prize for Asyla CD, 1999; Grawemeyer Prize, 2000.
Among his earlier compositions, Living Toys, an orchestral suite in eight movements commissioned for the London Sinfonietta, became his most performed work. After its premiere in London under Oliver Knus-sen, Living Toys earned widespread interest and was acclaimed at the 1994 Paris Rostrum as the best work by a composer under 30 years old. The excitement over Living Toys led Adès to receive further commissions, including a work for string quartet called Arca-diana. Next came the opera Powder Her Face, with a libretto by novelist Philip Hensher. Commissioned by the Almeida Opera for the Cheltenham Festival in 1995, Powder Her Face brought the composer his first taste of international recognition. Following its debut, the opera went on to performances in Germany, California, New York, Brisbane, Australia, and Helsinki, Finland.
While well-received by reviewers, Powder Her Face, based on the life of society beauty Margaret Whigham, also proved more controversial than Adès had anticipated. Whigham, eventually crowned Duchess of Argyll, was involved in a scandalous divorce case made famous by the tabloid press. One piece of evidence in particular that intrigued the tabloids concerned a photograph of Whigham performing a sexual act with a man whose face remained off camera. In Adès’ opera, this activity is played out and sung by the lead soprano in the so-called “fellatio aria.” According to Adès, he never expected the degree of shock the scene provoked. A few critics even called the opera an outright attack on a defenseless, elderly woman. But in response to his adversaries, Adès defended himself by stating that he intended to create an outrageous, unlikable character whom the audience, in the end, feels compelled to identify with.
In September of 1998, the popularity of Powder Her Face was strengthened with the release of a CD by EMI Classics made from a BBC tape of the premiere performance conducted by Adès. This release followed two earlier CDs of chamber works featuring the composer as both conductor and pianist: Life Story, released by EMI in May of 1997, and Living Toys, issued in February of 1998 and winner of the Editor’s Choice Gramophone Award that year.
The primary reason Adès’ compositions are so appealing and commanding, according to music critics, is the composer’s ability to write music that sounds organic, yet remains challenging to the listener. “His music is not ‘difficult’ in the formal sense. It is not atonal, though he uses a good deal of dissonance,” explained one critic in the Economist. “It is richly scored, in the orchestral pieces drawing on the whole 20th-century tradition of incorporating unusual rhythms and instruments with the restrictions imposed by the classical orchestra. However, it is music that demands a great deal from the listener. It is intense in mood and structure, often with altering planes of differing sounds. Something that seems familiar in the context of a small chamber orchestra will give way to a modern jazz band and revert to primitive folk texture all within a few minutes. There is irony and humor, but this, too, is deceptive because beneath these there is clearly a fierce intellect and passionate involvement.”
Adès revealed the same confident compositional skills in his first large-scale orchestral work, Asyla, a tone poem commissioned for Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that premiered in October of 1997. The work’s title, the plural form of asylum, suggests the conflicting images of a “refuge, sanctuary, and mad-house,” the composer told the Economist. “It’s been a turning-point,” he added. “I’d realized how small-scale some of my music has been. It’s an event in my life.” After its premiere, the acclaimed Asyla immediately toured to cities in Great Britain and Europe, and in August of 1998, Rattle performed the work again in his last concert as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In June of 1999, EMI released a CD of the event, conducted by Rattle, coupled with some of Adès’ other works that featured him as pianist and conductor.
In the summer of 1999, Adès signed an exclusive recording contract with EMI Classics. In December of that year, a profile of the composer aired on British television, followed by a film version of Powder Her Face, which was broadcast on Christmas Day. Adès’ future projects include a solo piano recital album, due for release in late 2000, including works by Stravinsky, Busoni, Janacek, Grieg, and Nancarrow. Continuing to compose new works, Adès completed a commission called America, a Prophecy for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s millennium celebration in November of 1999. After this project, Adès began work on an opera commissioned by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
As of January 2000, Adès had completed 26 works and continued to hold a number of esteemed positions, such as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and Britten professor at the Royal Academy of Music. In addition to composing, he has been an active pianist and conductor for the BBC, the Cheltenham and Aldeburgh festivals, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the London Sinfonietta, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Outside the United Kingdom, Adès has played his music abroad with members of the New York Philharmonic, the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt and Berlin, the Schoenberg Ensemble in Amsterdam, as well as in Los Angeles, Toronto, Tokyo, Brisbane, and at the Helsinki Music Nova in March of 1999.
Although Adès has only been recognized as a dominant force in contemporary classical music for a short number of years, he has already won several awards and prizes. They include the Paris Rostrum for the best piece by a composer under 30 in 1994, the 1997 Royal Philharmonic Society prize for Asyla, the Elise L. Stoeger Prize for Arcadiana (New York) in 1998, the Salzburg Easter Festival Prize in 1999, and the Munich Ernst von Siemens Prize for Young Composers in 1999. Additionally, the Asyla EMI CD won a coveted Mercury Music Prize and was the only classical album short-listed for the Mercury Music Prize Record of the Year. Adès followed this achievement by taking home the 2000 Grawemeyer Prize, the largest international prize for composition. With this highly coveted honor, Adès became the youngest composer ever to have won the prestigious Grawemeyer and only the third British winner in the award’s 15-year history.
Life Story, EMI, 1997.
Living Toys, EMI, 1998.
Powder Her Face, EMI, 1998.
Asyla, EMI, 1999.
Billboard, July 18, 1998, p. 11.
Detroit Free Press, July 20, 1997.
Economist, June 12, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2000.
New Criterion, March 1999, p. 51.
New Statesman, February 21, 1997, p. 40; January 17, 2000, p. 45.
Opera News, December 6, 1997, pp. 78-79; February 1999, p. 64.
Time, December 28, 1998, p. 186.
“Thomas Adès,” EMI Classics, http://www.emiclassics.com (July 1, 2000).