Last year's most satisfying Boston Symphony concert was led by the 41-year-old British composer/conductor/pianist Thomas Adès, who combined music from his marvel-filled opera, The Tempest (2004), with other works inspired by Shakespeare's late romance. Adès just conducted The Tempest's Metropolitan Opera premiere and HD telecast to theaters around the world, and shuttled between New York and Boston for his return to the BSO, with another intriguing, elegantly constructed program.
The centerpiece was his 2008 quasi-piano-concerto/tone poem, In Seven Days, a half-hour series of colorful, compelling variations running the gamut from spiky to rhapsodic, depicting the Creation week from first light through ultimate contemplation (Adès omitted the original accompanying video). Strings begin with syncopated cosmic "raindrops," from which evolve ocean and firmament, earth and sky (starlit piano and whistling winds), and in two continuous fugal movements, all the earth's creatures, polyphonically interacting. Variations, Adès says, are a formal embodiment of the Creation narrative. As in Elliott Carter, each thread proceeds at its own pace. Adès avoids cliché and holds our attention without letup. And after inward contemplation, the cycle prepares to restart. Pianist Kirill Gerstein (a young Russian who studied jazz at Berklee) made an exciting, glittering contribution, but the composer actually got the bigger hand.
Adès opened with an earlier Creation myth, the murmuring tremolos of a rarely played Sibelius tone poem, Luonnotar, based on The Kalevala, and sung (in Finnish) with delicacy, awe, and emotional nuance by soprano Dawn Upshaw. Gerstein returned after intermission for a stunning version of Prokofiev's breathlessly earthy and jazzy single-movement First Piano Concerto. Adès conducted from the inside, as if he composed every piece himself.
He closed with Sibelius's exquisite, mysterious Sixth Symphony. If, as Adès says, In Seven Days is about transformation, the Sibelius is about transition, precariously balancing nostalgia and premonition — and refusing definitive cadence, at either the end of movements or of the entire piece, leaving us in a state of quizzical wonderment.
Adès revealed his pianistic prowess when he joined the phenomenal Gerstein at a BSO Chamber Players concert at Jordan Hall, playing Beethoven's own four-hand transcription of his challenging Grosse Fuge string-quartet movement. With all those hilariously interweaving cross-hand maneuvers, were there really only four hands?
The concert, performed in memory of the late Elliott Carter, also included Carter's recent four-minute Figment III for double bass (with Edwin Barker having a three-way debate with himself) and enchanting 1948 Woodwind Quintet. A touching tribute.