A Generous Portion of the Music of Thomas Adès on Sunday’s SummerFest Menu

Sunday evening’s SummerFest concert at the JAI continued the festival’s plunge into the music of Thomas Adès, this year’s Composer-in-residence. The Calder Quartet played two of his string quartets: Arcadiana, Op. 12, from 1994 and The Four Quarters from 2010, a U.S. première. We also heard clarinetist Mark Simpson, violist Itsuki Yamamoto, and the composer at the piano performing his Four Berceuses from his opera The Exterminating Angel.

Benjamin Jacobson, Tereza Stanislav, Jonathan Moershal & Eric Byers [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Although the term Arcadia typically denotes either some mythical realm of the gods or the perfection of untrammeled nature, in Adès’ comments before the performance of Arcadiana he explained he wanted each of the work’s seven movements to represent some kind of “haven.” I think this is an important insight with which to approach this string quartet.

I am reluctant to make sweeping generalizations about the string quartet repertory, but one aspect is arguably universal. Composers who have successfully written for this ensemble of four strings regularly employ the sonic compatibility of these instruments from the same family to create robust fortissimo dynamics that remind their audiences of orchestral power.

But this is a path rarely taken in Adès’ string quartets. He concentrates on high pianissimo traceries, deft harmonics, a wide array of pizzicato motifs and accompaniments, and he favors the subtler dynamic levels that a quartet can produce. While I sense the passion that underlies Adès’ music, appassionato is a rare designation from him.

The Calder Quartet gave a transcendent account of Arcadiana. Their superb ensemble playing was buoyed by shimmering, gossamer motifs from violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Tereza Stanislav, ardent phrasing from violist Jonathan Moershal, and the sumptuous support of cellist Eric Byers’ impeccable bass lines and occasional soaring themes.

Calder has recorded Adès’ The Four Quarters for Hyperion, and their intensely probing, centered account of the work clearly demonstrated their affinity to the composer’s style. Each movement of the quartet is named for a portion of the 24-hour cycle: “Nightfalls,” “Morning Dew,” “Days,” and “The 25th Hour,” but Adès’ abstract style is as different from the pictorial depictions of, say, Grieg or Smetana as . . . well, night and day!

Mysterious, quiet, sustained textures dominate “Nightfalls” as the violins’ motifs gently flicker high above the low murmur of viola and cello. When the instruments coalesce, their sonority reminded me of an austere Renaissance motet, but with a completely different harmonic vocabulary. “Morning Dew” explodes with driving pizzicato motifs from all the instruments, a kind of bracing scherzo, followed by the languorous “Days,” a succession of dour but insistent rhythmic ostinatos. Adès wrote “The Twenty-Fifth Hour” in the highly unusual time signature of 25/16, but somehow the rhythmic complexity of his ideas is nevertheless able to end his quartet with a surprisingly peaceful resolution.

Inon Barnatan & Mark Simpson [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

With the composer again at the piano assisted by Mark Simpson and Itsuki Yamamoto, we heard Four Berceuses from his well-received 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel. Conceived in a style similar to his string quartet The Four Quarters, these short lullabies benefited from the warm, ingratiating timbre of Simpson’s clarinet and the subtle bowing of Yamamoto’s viola.

Adès tore through the intricacies of Conlon Nancarrow’s “Three Canons for Ursula” with astonishing prowess. These pieces are so demanding—one of the canons was originally withheld by the publisher because it was thought to be unplayable—that few virtuosos are willing to submit to their discipline. Adès’ finesse made these daunting inventions on steroids much more than a mere feat!

In this first week of SummerFest, English clarinetist Mark Simpson has been the featured soloist in several major pieces, so it was an additional pleasure to hear him play his own composition “Lov(escape)” assisted by Inon Barnatan at the piano. To a fiery piano accompaniment, Simpson’s clarinet shot urgent, driving themes, caressed tender melodies, and let out a few high shrieks in this clever, manic etude.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Sunday evening, August 6, 2023, at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

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