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Thomas Adès Conducts AFO

MAW Presents British Composer/Conductor/Pianist

On Saturday, July 20, British composer-conductor-pianist Thomas Adès, who bedazzled audiences five years ago when he conducted the AFO in his own riveting orchestral work Polaris, returns with his fascinating 1994 work Origin of the Harp, along with Stravinsky’s ever-popular Pulcinella. | Credit: Jesse Costa

Virtually each of the eight weeks making up the Music Academy of the West summer season brings with it artists of international note. Last week, the starring attraction was the London Symphony Orchestra performing three concerts in a row and culminating with a “Community Concert” at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

This week, the orchestral component of the program scales down to a chamber orchestra performance at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, July 20, but is bolstered by the presence of two world-class musical legends: pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as soloist on Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and famed British composer-conductor-pianist Thomas Adès, who bedazzled the audience five years ago when he conducted the Academy Festival Orchestra (AFO) in his own riveting orchestral work Polaris. On this visit, Adès — who comes to town after an all-Adès concert in Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — will conduct his fascinating 1994 work Origin of the Harp, along with Stravinsky’s ever-popular Pulcinella.

Adès admitted that his “strongest connection to Santa Barbara is a personal one,” having to do with the presence of pianist-mentor Paul Berkowitz. Head of piano studies at UCSB, Berkowitz was a powerfully influential force on the young Adès, who studied with him at London’s Guildhall School of Music. 

“If I’m in Santa Barbara, I always make a point of seeing him,” said Adès. “He’s a wonderful teacher, a wonderful pianist. Back when I was 14 or 15, and already focused exclusively on contemporary music, he really was the one who opened the doors for me into the great music of the core repertory — Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms. It was he who very gently pushed me to look at that repertoire seriously, and thank goodness he did because it’s difficult to survive on a musical diet that doesn’t include that central canon.”

Adès, 48, is widely recognized as one of the great composers of his generation, and his oeuvre includes the significant operas Powder Her Face, The Tempest, and Exterminating Angel (based on the Luis Buñuel film). He is also known as a triple threat/promise, a gifted conductor and pianist, fond of leading his own scores. “I’ve huge admiration for — and envy — my composer friends who don’t conduct or perform,” he said. “I don’t know how they don’t go completely mad. So it’s sort of a way of letting off steam, and I love being inside the performance as a conductor. I hope it gives me some kind of understanding of the root that grows between writing something down and then having it performed. There’s the printed score that lies in between, and the road that leads from one to the other, obviously involving performers giving life to one’s composition. And I hope it gives one a little bit more of an education in how to express one’s compositional ideas on paper, when thinking of the performer and how they’re going to interpret what one writes down. 

“I much prefer to be on the podium than to be in the audience at the premiere of one of my new pieces,” he continued. “I would otherwise sit there unable to do anything — not that the performance isn’t good, but I feel as though all I can do is look at the audience sitting around me and feel nervous about how they’re responding. But if I’m standing on the podium, I have much more to worry about in terms of leading the performance, so I’m not quite so concerned about what’s happening behind me in the auditorium,” he laughed.

Taking an overview of his musical life, Adèsasserted,“I’m just very lucky that I can get out of the studio occasionally to work with real live musicians in a practical way. I think I’d go rather mad if I was only sitting in the studio writing all the time. I personally would feel rather divorced from reality in some way, although that’s just my own feeling.”


4•1•1 | Thomas Adèsconducts theAcademy Chamber Orchestra, Friday, July 20, 7:30 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Cannon Perdido St.). For tickets and information, see musicacademy.org.

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