Thomas Adès charts a journey through hell and heaven

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Thomas Adès charts a journey through hell and heaven
Gustavo Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the American premiere of Thomas Adès's “Dante,” at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, April 28, 2022. “Dante” got its start here three years ago, when the first section — “Inferno,” a love letter to Liszt, whom Adès has referred to as “my Virgil” — was one of many substantial premieres celebrating the Philharmonic’s centennial. Alex Welsh/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone



LOS ANGELES, CA.- Step into Walt Disney Concert Hall here this weekend, and you’ll find one of the rarest creatures in classical music: a new evening-length work.

Premieres are most often relegated to the realm of curtain raisers. At best, composers can hope for the post-intermission pride of place almost always reserved for classic symphonies. A full program, though? Practically unheard of.

But the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the most adventurous of America’s major orchestras, is a reliable exception. And Thursday, it gave the U.S. premiere of Thomas Adès’ “Dante,” a more-than-90-minute journey through hell and the spheres of heaven, a musical analogue to “The Divine Comedy” that, in its expansive yet discrete sound worlds, rises to meet its source material.

“Dante” got its start here three years ago, when the first section — “Inferno,” a love letter to Franz Liszt, whom Adès has referred to as “my Virgil” — was one of many substantial premieres celebrating the Philharmonic’s centennial. The full work landed in London last fall as “The Dante Project,” an ambitious commission by the Royal Ballet, choreographed by Wayne McGregor and featuring designs by artist Tacita Dean.

Not all ballet music belongs in the concert hall; there’s a reason the stage scores of Adolphe Adam or Léo Delibes are rarely programmed. Although Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” is his most appropriately balletic music, orchestras more readily take up the symphonic drama of “Swan Lake” or “The Nutcracker,” a consummate tone poem that — like Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and his other early works — is satisfyingly evocative in any context.

Put “Dante” in the pantheon of great ballet scores that stand alone — thrive, even — outside the pit and the proscenium. As seen in a streamed video from the Royal Ballet, it nearly overpowered the contributions by McGregor and Dean. But at Disney Hall, under the enthusiastic and commanding baton of Gustavo Dudamel, the music’s tempos were freer, the dense textures were more clearly defined and the mastery of craft was impossible to miss.

Adès’ work here is something of a modern answer to Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony — another work that traces the trilogy of “The Divine Comedy” with a choral finale — although there is more varied inspiration (and more Liszt) throughout. In that sense, it is typical Adès: referential, if not reverential, and slippery. Before you realize you’ve spotted an allusion, it’s gone. And it might not have even been real; that is the strange magic of his music, which manages to feel at once fresh and familiar.

It’s no surprise that “Dante” was met with prolonged, fervent standing ovations on Thursday. Adès is by no means an avant-gardist, and this work, for all its sophistication, is entirely approachable — legibly fun, vivid and, by the end, glorious. With the exception of recorded song deployed in “Purgatorio,” he writes with virtually the same means as a composer of a century ago: a happy reminder of how alive and well the orchestra can be as a medium and instrument.

In “Inferno,” he follows the path of Dante’s text — beginning, in the section “Abandon Hope,” with piercing darkness and a downward plunge reminiscent of the “Dante” Symphony. But although Liszt haunts “Inferno,” the craft is Adès’: hallmarks such as full-bodied, divisi strings; excess at both ends of the dynamic spectrum; and meter that changes by the measure.




From there, the circles of hell serve as ready-made divertissements, characterful episodes that conjure, however obliquely, the poetic justice delivered to Dante’s sinners. There are sections of sensuality and sludgy stasis; strings that chatter and murmur with mischief; and martial horrors similar to, well, hellfire. Chromatic runs, up and down on unsteady ground, recall Liszt’s “Bagatelle Sans Tonalité.” Does Adès also nod to “E sempre lava!” from Puccini’s “Tosca”? Maybe Tchaikovsky and the Dies Irae, too? You can never be sure.

Liszt reappears, more explicitly, in the climactic “Thieves” section, a cacophonous dance that would seem parodic if it didn’t so affectionately resemble the “Grand Galop Chromatique.” Here, liberated from any choreographic constraints, Dudamel gradually pressed the tempo in a desperate race that had the audience applauding midperformance; and how could they not?

With a running time of about 45 minutes, “Inferno” takes up roughly half of the “Dante” score, but it doesn’t loom over the distinctive personalities of “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso,” which came after an intermission.

Those two are more abstractly inspired by Dante. “Purgatorio” doesn’t follow the text canto by canto so much as echo its predawn mood and preoccupation with song. Adès employs an ancient Jewish prayer for early morning from Syria, now preserved in a recording from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem. After an opening without pitch — waves of wind blown through instruments, or bowed on the bridge in the strings — the cantor’s singing, amplified from the stage, enters and occasionally overtakes the orchestra.

At one point, like the inverted world of purgatory, the amplification moves up to the ceiling, from focused to spatial. And its sounds guide the orchestral writing; trumpets herald a “Heavenly Procession” with a tune that is quickly revealed to be a transcription. Because the prayer ends at dawn, the music does, too, with the luminous, Pearly Gates grandeur of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

And so Adès arrives at “Paradiso,” a glassy upward spiral in constant motion. Even as it descends, it does so with a weightless shimmer, and never for long. You wouldn’t think a composer could sustain a slow ascent for about 25 minutes, and the conceit appears to wear thin until its spell takes hold — a step outside time, cosmic and courting a hypnotic daze. When the climb reaches an untenable height, the orchestration teeming and begging for harmonic resolution, an offstage choir (the Los Angeles Master Chorale) provides it with a halo of heavenly consonance.

From this celestial perspective, the scattered chaos of “Inferno” is a distant memory. Everything in between has been a journey indeed — a range difficult to fathom for a single work. That, perhaps, is the real achievement of “Dante”: Like the poetry of “The Divine Comedy,” it seems to contain the entirety of life itself.



Los Angeles Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; laphil.com.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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