“My imagination is a gift”

Thomas Adès in conversation

Thomas Adès
(Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Thomas Adès is probably the best-known and most successful composer in England at the moment. His sonorous works, which alternate between irony and melancholy, have long been part of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s repertoire. He is now making his first appearance with the orchestra as a conductor. In our interview, Adès tells us what the programme of this concert is all about, what role the bass drum plays, and why his work is like that of an architect.

You know concert life from two perspectives, both as a composer and as a conductor. What do you find more exciting – your debut as a conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker or the premiere of a new work?
They are two completely different things – and each exciting in its own way. I’ve known the Berliner Philharmoniker for 20 years, but they’ve never seen me standing on the podium, and being there together will be exciting for both sides and hopefully deepen our relationship. I’m looking forward to collaborating directly with them, because it gives me the opportunity to present two of my own works and two pieces that are extremely close to my heart.

One of these works that is close to your heart is Hector Berlioz’ Les Francs-juges Overture, which will open the concert. Why did you choose this particular piece?
This is a very special, brilliant and electric work by Berlioz. He didn’t only conduct the piece. Sometimes he would also play the bass drum part, which has highly disruptive, complex rhythms that go against the rest of the orchestra. As a composer conducting this piece, I feel very close to Berlioz. I can imagine him sitting at the bass drum at the back of the orchestra, totally involved in his music. It’s very physical, extremely exciting, and it’s what music should be – pure electricity.

Chevaux-de-frise is another work close to your heart, a work by your composer colleague Gerald Barry. What do you admire about his music?
Chevaux-de-frise is like a sort of volcano. I actually heard it when I was a child at the Proms in England. It was so powerful, so strong – very, very different from any other music that was being written at that time. In a way, it opened the door quite violently to new possibilities of thinking, to new ways of building your work, new kinds of rhythm. Gerald Barry has been very important to my development as a composer.

The other two compositions we hear today are by you. Your work Concentric Paths is one of the most frequently performed contemporary violin concertos. A concerto is always about bringing a soloist into a relationship with a larger group of musicians. What roles do the violin and the orchestra play in your work?
Well, in this concerto, the violin at the beginning is a sort of solo and in front of a fairly empty stage.  But then very quickly it’s like the violin part begins to accumulate followers, which is the orchestra. The second movement is very complex. There’s a revolution where all of the conflict is turned on its head then becomes something that’s more peaceful. And the last movement is a kind of dance where they all go back off into the distance.

The second work of yours is based on your opera The Exterminating Angel, in which people who meet for an evening party suddenly discover that they can no longer leave the house. That is a very claustrophobic situation. How much did you identify with this situation when composing the work?Very much. When composing an opera, you actually almost go through the experience of the characters, go through it while you are writing it, in order to really make the journey of the characters real in your music. You inevitably experience what they experience in the in the story emotionally.

How is this reflected in your Exterminating Angel Symphony? What aspects did you use to compose the music?In the first movement, the characters arrive, the big party. There is a feeling of excitement and looking forward to an evening of pleasure and high talk and probably food and drink.  Then something strange happens: they arrive twice through the same door. It’s the first time that they’re actually leaving reality as we know it behind. You can hear that in the music. What happens when the people realise they can no longer leave the house? They simply go to sleep and we hear a military march, which stands for the Exterminating Angel. And the third movement of the symphony is about the two lovers who decide they will escape this magical prison that they’re in and somehow or other take their lives together. And then the last movement of the symphony I collected all the fragments of waltzes that appear in opera, and I bring them together to make one big waltz.

How useful is it for you as a composer to be a conductor?
It is very helpful. If I’m conducting music, and this goes for any music and especially my own, I can express directly to the orchestra what otherwise I might only be able to express by writing it down in the score.  So I can say, well, actually when it says this in the score, what I want is this kind of articulation or this kind of expression. I can demonstrate it with a gesture, or I can simply say it with my conducting. So sometimes I can improve a little bit on the markings in my own scores.

You have been associated with the Berliner Philharmoniker as a composer for 20 years: in September 2002, at Sir Simon Rattle’s inaugural concert as chief conductor, the orchestra played a work by you, Asyla, for the first time. What did this performance mean to you at that time? That was an extraordinary event in my life.  I was at the centre of a very important national event in Germany and Simon’s face was on every bus stop in Berlin.  I was just so proud and happy, so proud that Simon had felt that he wanted to make this extraordinary statement of confidence in a new work, a young composer, a work that is quite radical in its subject matter and its expression. And he was absolutely determined and completely unafraid to make this gesture. It was a very powerful gesture. So yeah, it was very important to me, of course.

And how have you in, in your opinion, developed as a composer in the last 20 years?
Well, you’ll have to ask somebody else (laughs). I’m the tiger and not the zoologist. But I think I can say that I’ve followed my my instinct many, many times and arrived at many new places over that time. I’m very happy about that.

You have already composed such an incredible amount and variety of music. How do you keep your imagination alive?
I trust it. It’s always been my gift, if you like.  And you never completely feel that you’ve said everything you can. I always like to see new possibilities,  I can find new doors in in my buildings, in my structures, because I see my works as structures, like architecture or something. And I can often feel afterwards, “There’s only a picture now, but there could have been a door”. There could be a door, I could write another piece. So that’s how one thing can lead to a new work.

And another debut:

Violinist Pekka Kuusisto debuts as the soloist in Adès' Violin Concerto

According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, Pekka Kuusisto has "the most personal sound of any classical violinist today” – at the same time, he is a musical crossover artist who effortlessly switches between different styles such as folk, jazz and electro: “The more I work with very different genres, the deeper I can dive into classical music in turn.” The charismatic Finn also appreciates the art of improvisation, which has many aspects “that are extremely useful for us as classically trained musicians. With Bach, you feel in every note that he was a gifted improviser”. Basically, Kuusisto says, his work consists of “storytelling. It is the essence of what I do. Sometimes I tell my own stories, sometimes those of others. The violinist, conductor and composer, who studied at the Sibelius Academy and the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, is now artistic director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and, from the 2023/24 season, principal guest conductor and artistic co-director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Very much a champion of contemporary music, Kuusisto works with composers such as Bryce Dessner, Daníel Bjarnason and Thomas Adès, whose violin concerto Concentric Paths he describes as “touching and deeply emotional music”.

Pekka Kuusisto
(Photo: Kaapo Kamu)