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Adès and the L.A. Philharmonic take over your senses

November 16, 2008 |  2:00 pm

Ades What Thomas Adès believes the people in America, moving as if in a dream state, were once weak from, besides drink, I cannot repeat in a family newspaper. We don’t print such words, even though this off-color one was taken from an ancient Maya text that was included in Adès’ “America: A Prophecy.” The work for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra was given its West Coast premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday. It was an adult evening.

That is to say, the orchestra bravely treated its audience as mature, capable of nuanced thinking about emotional subjects and able to accept artistic catharsis. But there were other aspects as well to the Adès and Berlioz program conducted by the former. The 37-year-old British composer goes in for sumptuous, surprising sound. He likes it strange and occasionally shocking. He doesn’t shrink from volume. He is happy to take over your senses along with your ears.

Berlioz is his kindred spirit, and Friday’s program began with the 19th century French composer’s exuberant arrangement of the bloodthirsty “Marseillaise,” with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger capturing the off-with-their-heads spirit of the French Revolution with buoyancy. By evening’s end, an uneasy — although deep and, in its way, exuberant — peace was achieved in Adès’ latest orchestral score, “Tevot,” also given its West Coast premiere.

“America: A Prophecy” completed the first half of the program, which represented nations at war. It followed Berlioz’s wonderfully descriptive music of the “Royal Hunt and Storm” from “The Trojans.” And like “The Trojans,” an epic opera about the founding of Rome, Adès’ score deals with prophecy and the founding of a world power. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as one of eight new works meant to offer “Messages for the Millennium” at the end of 1999, “America” was not a celebration but a reminder. Long before the invading Spaniards destroyed their civilization, the Maya warned the people to prepare with this text: “They will come from the east,” it reads, to burn the land, burn the sky.

New Yorkers were not pleased by such a message, its foul language and sentiment seemingly meant to spoil a celebratory occasion. Barely two years later, though, terrorists came from the east and burned land and sky. “America: A Prophecy” became eerie if still incendiary.

The music is riveting and extraordinary. A circular motif swirls through the orchestra, the sodden state. The mezzo sings in a flat, un-modulated tone, the voice of another world, unheeded, the Maya’s Cassandra. The chorus sings Spanish and Latin texts of war from the 15th and 16th centuries. The brass section dances the steps of merry, murderous invaders. The piece turns into a dark lament in its second half. “Ash,” the mezzo sings — without vibrato, as if dazed — “feels no pain.”

Adès is normally greeted at Disney with enthusiasm, as a favorite composer. He wasn’t this time, but there were no boos of protest either, just somber, muffled applause. Later, though, “Tevot” — which was preceded by Berlioz’s youthful overture to “Les Francs-juges” (Judges of the Secret Court) — turned the crowd around. “Tevot,” Adès explained in remarks to the audience, is the Hebrew word for Noah’s Ark, and he envisioned the 25-minute score, which was written for the Berlin Philharmonic and premiered in Germany last year, as a symphonic journey to safety.

If America was the message of the previous millennium, perhaps the planet is that of the new one, the ark that must somehow be preserved to carry us safely on our way through space. The word “tevot” also happens to be Hebrew for the bar line in a musical score, and Adès said he saw that as a symbol for creating order out of chaos. Like “America,” this journey begins with another weird swirl — this one, though, more music of the spheres. After a section of vigorous, brash dance music, “Tevot” settles down into long, calming, Mahlerian peace seeking, awed slow music of haunting beauty.

Adès doesn’t hold back in his music. When it’s raw, it’s raw. When it’s cooked, it gets four stars. He doesn’t hold back in his conducting either. Much of the evening, he pushed the acoustics of Disney. But when he wanted to, he could shape a lyric phrase exquisitely. And when he wanted to, he could make time slow down, as he did at the end of “Tevot.” Had it never ended, that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.

-- Mark Swed

Photo credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

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