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Composed: 2018

Length: c. 21 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd=piccolo, 3rd=alto flute), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd=bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, choke cymbal, cowbell, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, gongs, guiro, marimba, roto-tom, side drum, sizzle cymbal, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, tenor drum, whip, wood block, xylophone), and strings

About this Piece

Since its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in March 2019, this exuberant, accessible Concerto has achieved the sort of immediate recognition and genuine affection almost unprecedented for a piece of “new music.” It has received the amazing number of 50 performances, in cities all over the globe. In February 2020, Deutsche Grammophon released a recording of the Boston Symphony performances with soloist Kirill Gerstein, who originally encouraged Adès to write the piece on a commission for the BSO and has been its enthusiastic interpreter and champion.

Wherever performed, the Concerto has sent reviewers reaching for their superlatives. The New York Times called it “an affectionate, joyous, remarkably uncomplicated tribute to tradition.” Numerous critics have pointed out the Concerto’s kinship with the concertos of Sergei Prokofiev, Béla Bartók, and even Sergei Rachmaninoff. In an interview, Gerstein observed that Adès “references the traditional models, but you never think he is doing something derivative.”

The fast-slow-fast three-movement structure and “traditionalism” have surprised many of the composer’s admirers, since in his prolific earlier career Adès was turning out works of a more avant-garde variety, such as In Seven Days (2008), written for piano, orchestra, and six video screens (commissioned by the LA Phil, which gave the U.S. premiere), or his ribald chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995). Now, in his 50s, Adès seems to be feeling a new appreciation for the possibilities of Classical form and tonality, but suffused with colors, harmonies, rhythmic flexibility, and instrumental combinations unmistakably his own. Gerstein remarks that the piece “does what a piano concerto should do–it has octaves, a cadenza, a slow movement of gravitas.” For the piano soloist, who is rarely silent and summoned to perform a wide variety of virtuosic tricks, the Concerto is certainly a challenge, but “no more difficult than your average very difficult concerto,” Gerstein told The Boston Globe.

Scored for a very large orchestra with a dazzling array of percussion, the dramatic first movement develops two distinct themes (an ascending, athletically rhythmic first subject and what Adès calls a “more expressive” contrasting second one) in a manner closely resembling traditional sonata-allegro form. The slithering, glittering instrumentation and keyboard acrobatics (steep descending chordal passages, an octave “mini-cadenza,” flashy tremolo) bring to mind moments in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, a landmark of urbane early 20th-century modernism. Like all the movements, the first is relatively brief, only seven minutes, but packed with action and variety.

Marked Andante gravemente, the slow, reflective second movement, in the composer’s own words, “consists of a choral introduction and a melody, which is joined by a countermelody, and a second idea with a simple falling melody over rising harmony. The first melody reappears, leading to a fortissimo climax, subsiding to a final statement of the original theme and a coda based on the countermelody.”

Like the preceding two movements, the concluding Allegro giojoso displays considerable fluidity of meter and rhythm, with rapidly changing patterns and “frequent differences of opinion as regards key.” Tumbling motifs dominate, “in the style of a ball bouncing downstairs,” leading to a “precipice which the piano falls off” and a final return of the three-chord “call to arms” with which the movement began. –Harlow Robinson

Composer’s Note

The first movement Allegramente opens with a statement of the theme by piano and then tutti. A march-like bridge passage leads to the more expressive second subject, first played by the piano and then taken up by the orchestra. The development section interrogates the first theme before an octave mini-cadenza leads to the recapitulation ff. There is then a solo cadenza based on the second subject, first played tremolo and then over many octaves, the piano joined first by the horn and then by full orchestra. The movement ends with a coda based on the first theme and the march.

The second movement Andante gravemente consists of a chordal introduction and a melody, which is joined by a countermelody, and a second idea with a simple falling melody over rising harmony. The first melody reappears, leading to a fortissimo climax, subsiding to a final statement of the original theme and a coda based on the countermelody.

The finale Allegro giojoso begins with a three-chord call to arms, and then a tumbling theme for piano and orchestra, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of a clarinet solo, heralding a burlesque canon. There is here a good deal of argument, with frequent differences of opinion as regards key, brought to an end by the call to arms. Eventually the piano takes up a new theme in the style of a ball bouncing down stairs and develops it to a choral climax. The tumbling material is developed, and the call to arms is heard in multiple directions leading to an impasse, a winding down of tempo, and a new slow (Grave) section in three time with a falling theme. This leads to a precipice which the piano falls off with the original tumbling theme, and a coda lining up all the other themes for a final resolution on the call to arms. ―Thomas Adès