Illuminated by shooting stars and light beams

A chandelier in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam - prelude to Adès' Op. 28. © Charles Thibo
A chandelier in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – prelude to Adès’ Op. 28. © Charles Thibo

Luck was on my side yesterday evening: First, the Doric String Quartet introduced me to Thomas Adès, a contemporary composer, and to “The Four Quarters”, a highly interesting piece. Second, the cellist John Myerscough explained in a few, well-chosen words the structure of that work in order to pave the way for a greater acceptance and a better understanding of this example of Neue Musik. He succeeded on both accounts. The setting of that enriching experience: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – my first ever visit in that prestigious concert hall.

Light and Water

“The Four Quarters” is a piece in four movements as the title suggests and is inspired by four different aspects of a day. It starts with “Nightfalls”: The two violins play isolated notes while the cello and the viola provide a background in a lower key. John Myercough compared the violin part with shooting stars crisscrossing the dark sky and that aptly sums is up. The piece moves on to the second movement called “Serenade: Morning Dew”. The first half of that movement is an interesting pizzicato* and suggests the light beams resulting of the sun being reflected by droplets of water. Does that sound familiar? Yes, it does. One more composer fascinated by this impression, just like Debussy or Smetana.

The third part, called “Days”, was described by the cellist in his introduction as a “recurrent melody”, illustrating the fact that “things happen” during the day and that one day will always be followed by another day. The final movement “The Twenty-fifth Hour” lets the audience imagine what could happen in a hypothetical additional hour, and Adès follows here the path of others when he asks the listener to give the music his own personal meaning. The beginning of the fourth movement made me think of the many things that we try to pack into a day as we never seem to have time enough to do what we want to do, this idea being in sharp contrast with the steady movements of the earth as it rotates around itself and around the sun.

Composer, pianist, conductor

The British composer Thomas Adès was born in 1971 and is also a performing pianist and conductor. Between 1983 and 1988 he studied at the Guildhall School for Music in London. Later he followed piano classes under the Hungarian composer György Kurtag, who was himself a student of Olivier Messiaen, whom we have already met. Between 1999 and 2008 he was the artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival.

So far Adès composed several chamber music works and symphonic pieces and two operas: “Powder her Face” and “The Tempest”. His Op. 28 “The Four Quarters” was premiered in 2011 at Carnegie Hall in New York, by which it had been commissioned, and is available on a recording by the Calder Quartet, available also on Spotify.

However, Adès’ piece takes only some 20 minutes, too short to fill an evening at the Concertgebouw, and so the Doric String Quartet performed as a warm-up Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 24 Nb. 4 and as a finale Schumann’s String Quartet Op. 41. Nb. 1. This choice put Adès in excellent company, and while the four musicians did not seem to be very inspired by Haydn’s piece, they excelled with Schumann’s quartet, lively and lovely. The audience responded with thundering applause and standing ovations – all well deserved – and was entitled to an encore, the adagio of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76 Nb. 4 “Sunrise”.

© Charles Thibo

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