He is the most gifted British composer of his time, but his love of musical extremes holds him backby Ivan Hewett / April 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Even as the UK is brimming with wonderful young composers, I think few would dispute that Tom Adès may be the most extravagantly gifted of them all.” So claims Simon Rattle, who will soon be returning from Berlin to lead the London Symphony Orchestra. Few would dispute his assertion. Born in London in 1971, Thomas Adès studied piano and composition at the Guildhall before going on to create orchestral and operatic works that have won him enormous acclaim and popularity—even among those who traditionally avoid modern classical music. For some he is our greatest composer since Benjamin Britten.
And yet Rattle’s praise doesn’t quite strike the right note. He suggests Adès differs from his peers simply in the “extravagance” of his gifts. But in many respects Adès is unique. He floats above other composers at a rarefied altitude of celebrity, winning in his twenties prizes that normally go to composers in their seventies. He first came to popular attention with his 1995 opera Powder Her Face, his portrayal (with librettist Philip Hensher) of the tragicomic fate of the scandalous Duchess of Argyll. That work is now a fixture in the operatic repertoire.
One of Adès’s favourite quotations is from André Breton: “Life is elsewhere.” And that’s where he always seems to be—flitting from one high-prestige venue to another, conducting in Salzburg one week, Los Angeles the next. Some years ago his music was the subject of three major retrospectives simultaneously, on three different continents. As an awed critic said to me, not even Britten attracted attention on such a scale.
Yet more superlatives are being thrown at Adès in the wake of the recent premiere in Salzburg of his opera The Exterminating Angel. (It comes to Covent Garden on 24th April). Based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film, it follows the fate of 15 dinner guests trapped in a dining room by some unseen power as they descend into madness and anarchy. The praise has been rapturous. “A turning point for Adès and opera itself,” said the Observer; the Telegraph, more circumspect, commented on the music’s hyperactivity mingled with rapt beauty and brilliant moments of parody.