Oct 3, 2011
by Joshua Kosman
Multimedia creations are a fine thing in their way, but when one strain amounts to a work of brilliance all on its own, everything else tends to get overshadowed.
Such is the case with “Polaris,” an extravagantly beautiful and concise new orchestral score by the English composer Thomas Adès. Friday’s performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall left a listener enchanted by the work’s eloquence and formal clarity, as well as its combination of historical echoes and utter novelty.
But Adès’ music isn’t the whole of “Polaris,” which also features a film by video artist Tal Rosner. The entirety, created for last year’s opening of the Miami concert hall that is now home to the New World Symphony, offers a series of nautical images, in both sound and visuals.
That’s not to say, though, that the two meet on an equal footing. Rosner’s film is pleasantly atmospheric, a triptych of beachfront footage that begins with crashing waves and gives way to images of two women looking pouty and thoughtful amid the kelp. Aside from an interesting ballet of geometric shapes in the early minutes, it doesn’t provide much to ponder.
There’s a graciousness about its modesty – the film never tries to overpower Adès’ score – which is matched by the music’s complementary willingness to give the film a bit of space.
Still, the point of the exercise is Adès’ 14-minute musical odyssey, which places the brass section in the balcony and the rest of the orchestra onstage. Two thematic images dominate the piece – the endlessly roiling sea itself, depicted by patterns of musical repetition that vary in unpredictable ways, and the stars above, which provide a stable reckoning point.
Adès’ gift is to make these themes both familiar and innovative. The aquatic imagery is set in motion by an opening piano figure – fluid and gently mercurial – and then by orchestral vistas that owe a clear allegiance to the “Sea Interludes” from Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”
Overlaid on that is the almost mathematical clarity of the starry brass choir. Like a stretch of Renaissance vocal polyphony, “Polaris” is arrayed across a series of crisp structural anchors at which the music suddenly clicks into harmonic focus. Then it embarks again on the next leg of the voyage.
And although metaphorical imagery and tone painting take the music a long way, what finally proves most entrancing is Adès’ inventive use of harmony and his mastery of melody and orchestral color. Even in the music’s most hard-edged passages, there’s a rapturous sheen to the score that makes it impossible to resist.
Thomas and the orchestra gave the piece a superb performance, with the interplay between the brass and the rest of the orchestra rendered with sumptuous delicacy.
The rest of the evening was no less exciting, beginning with a robust yet elegant performance of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony and concluding after intermission with a vivacious and detailed account of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.”
Thomas seemed intent on conjuring up the theatrical pictures of the ballet, bringing evocative clarity to the public scenes of the two outer movements and emotional directness to the more intimate scenes in between. There were excellent solo contributions from flutist Tim Day, bassoonist Stephen Paulson and especially trumpeter Mark Inouye, whose every turn in the spotlight these days seems to elicit greatness.