New Adès and Old Mahler

United StatesUnited States  Adès and Mahler:  New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. 7.1.2012 (BH)

Thomas Adès: Polaris (2010-11, New York Premiere)
: Symphony No. 9 (1908-10)

A gorgeous new piece from Thomas Adès made a fine companion to Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – the latter often presented by itself, since its sober trajectory easily stands alone – in this evening with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. What the two works share – written roughly 100 years apart – is a love of what a large orchestra can do. In Polaris, Adès places some of the brass in tiers (at Avery Fisher Hall, they were both front and back) adding a spatial dimension to his sleek textures and swirling colors. In three sections, the piece deploys a canonical form, in which the same material is heard at varying speeds. After a glittering journey of just over ten minutes, the orchestra finally reaches a breathtaking single note – a high “A” well above the stave – to end. The crowd was vocal in its approval, adding more fuel to the argument that today’s audiences are more open to contemporary fare than some programmers might think.

Gilbert is showing himself to be a fine Mahlerian – perhaps more in the vein of Boulez than Bernstein – with emphasis on clarity and avoiding extra angst. Those who like their Mahler as thickly applied as a splattered Jackson Pollock painting might be surprised – pleasantly – by Gilbert’s watercolors and collage. (Perhaps think Paul Klee.) The first movement, especially was tender, crystalline – a lattice of interwoven strands, through which buzzing muted trumpets could be glimpsed now and then. The movement ended to a smattering of applause, not undeserved.

The second-movement landler showed the same transparency, with garrulous outbursts from the low brass and percussion. In the third movement, marked “very insolent,” things started to turn ugly (figuratively speaking) with brisker tempos than some – a Baroque concerto gone terribly wrong. Throaty, richly textured strings opened the final Adagio, with Gilbert painting broad, searching lines and the orchestra responding with its own grandeur. The final bars were enhanced by a nearly silent audience, and I was tempted to let myself continue to sink into a state of meditation – until the applause began.

Bruce Hodges