Let's meet again! - Thomas Adès

Composer in residence


The Belgian National Orchestra, BOZAR and de Munt/la Monnaie have appointed the British pianist, conductor and composer Thomas Adès to be composer in residence for the 2021-22 season. His first opera, Powder Her Face, premiered in 1995 and brought him international renown. Since then he has been commissioned to compose works by some of the world’s greatest orchestras. The Belgian National Orchestra will be performing the Belgian premier of his recently composed and extremely successful piano concerto. Time for a talk with Thomas Adès.


How would you describe your musical style?

Melodic, harmonious and rhythmic. New too, I hope. And varied, which is perhaps most telling of all. Also being a performer myself – I play and conduct work ranging from Beethoven to the 21st century repertoire – so I am rather a child of the classical tradition. What interests me particularly in this is the way history does not follow a straight line but is more of a spiral or a circle. The past returns every time in a different form. My music also always tells a story, and not only the operas but also the works for orchestra.

At the end of January you are conducting both your own work and Gustav Holst’s The Planets. How different is it to conduct a score written by somebody else?

Conducting your own work feels very natural as you know the music through and through. It is in your system. When I conduct scores by other composers I make this music as much my “own”, as if I had written it myself. To provide the best possible performance I have to imagine inhabiting the composer’s own nervous system.

The piano concerto you are conducting at the end of January is not your first work for piano and orchestra…

Correct. In Seven Days, which premiered in 2008, is also a kind of piano concerto, but with accompanying video images and inspired by a story of Creation. I also consider Concerto Conciso, written in 1997 for piano and ensemble, to be a small piano concerto.

Did the pianist Kirill Gerstein, who will also be playing the solo parts in Belgium, have any influence on the composition process?

When I heard that he would be playing the piano concerto I felt totally free to write exactly what I wanted. I don’t need to worry about anything that he might not be able to do. Kirill Gerstein is a brilliant man who is not only incredibly skilled but also someone who really understands the music he performs. And he did not disappoint me!


You will also be performing an ‘Inferno suite’. What exactly is the origin of this work?

I was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House to write a three-part Dante-ballet, based on La divina commedia. The first part, Inferno, premiered in 2019. Purgatorio and Paradiso were postponed until the next season due to the continuing health crisis. The music from this ballet is an ode to Franz Liszt. The Dante ballet stands in relation to the works of Liszt much as Stravinsky’s Pulcinella stands in relation to the works of Pergolesi. In Rome I already presented an ‘Inferno suite’: a few highlights from the ballet brought together as a work for orchestra. We will be doing the same in Brussels. One of the last sections, The Thieves, exceptionally fiery and inspired by Liszt’s demonic virtuosity, will certainly be included!

Do the rules of ballet music differ from those of concert music?

The fact that dancers have to move to your music does indeed make a big difference. Repetition plays a major role in the score – and that opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. Ballet music also has to create the right atmosphere, it
must be able to transport you... It is more scenic, more narrative, more imaginative.

Your piano concerto has already been performed worldwide. How do you view all these different interpretations? Is there a definitive performance or not?

Orchestras vary a great deal: the way in which the wind instruments relate to the strings, or the precise nature of the dialogue with the percussion... These nuances are too rich to be expressed in words. American orchestras are incredibly skilled while others are very expressive… Of course I have my preferences, but for the rest I get great pleasure from the various ways in which my work is performed.

We live in turbulent times. The health crisis, the climate crisis, political crises… Are you somebody who engages with society through the music?

Of course I am sensitive to what is going on in society. But if one day I decided to really fight for a cause, then I don’t think writing a piano concerto would be the right ‘tool’. Beethoven was a man with strong political opinions. But relating his music to his convictions is always going to be guesswork. If Beethoven had made specific references to the politics of the early 18th century then he would have been much less interesting for us. Beethoven’s Ninth is an example: This symphony communicates an ideal of a humanity that becomes one, of a general fraternity. The fact that all of this remains abstract is an unbelievable strength. Of course the passions you feel in everyday life