'Polaris' in San Francisco

'Polaris' in San Francisco
On the 29th and 30th September 2011, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as they gave the first San Francisco performance of Thomas Adès’s latest orchestral work - Polaris.  Commissioned by no less than seven organisations, the piece has already received rave reviews from its performances in Miami, Amsterdam and Los Angeles.  The San Francisco performance was no exception and the critics unanimously praised this mighty work.
 
To find out more about the Polaris, you can read an interview with Thomas Adès.
You can also watch a video of Michael Tilson Thomas explaining his take on the work - click here to watch.


'…Polaris [is] 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.
 
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... 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.'
San Francisco Chronicle (Joshua Kosman), 3 October 2011
 
 
'Thomas Adès continues to astonish. Sixteen years after the premiere of his audacious opera, Powder Her Face, the British composer remains a musical force to be reckoned with. Adès returned to Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday evening to unveil his latest work: with the first San Francisco Symphony performance of Polaris, contemporary music aficionados, once again, could only be dazzled by this remarkable musician’s bracingly distinctive compositional voice.
 
Adès’ Polaris, which radiates light with all the shimmering power and mystery of its celestial namesake, emerged the evening’s high point… the score registers as a major triumph for the 40-year-old Adès…the score, subtitled Voyage for Orchestra, conjures an unmistakable sense of vastness. Polaris begins with an insinuating melody introduced by piano and circulated among five groups of brass instruments playing in canon; the theme branches out into 12 pitches, but always returns, as if magnetized, to an anchor: a kind of musical Polaris, or North Star, around which other stars revolve.
 
The first section is stark, meditative; as woodwinds, harp, and percussion are folded in, the sound world becomes denser, fleeter, more enveloping. The music shimmers and undulates, suggesting water rippling, flowing, finally arriving in massive waves reaching a long shore. Throughout, Adès turns the original theme on its head, passing it around the orchestra, introducing weightier orchestrations, then thinning the texture in a return to the sound of piano and serene strings. The second section, augmented by mallet instruments, recalls the flavor of Balinese gamelan; the crashing chords of the finale suggest the destruction of a star — or perhaps the birth of a new one.
 
…it was a magnificent introduction to an irresistible new work.'
San Francisco Classical Voice (Georgia Rowe), 29 September 2011
 
 
'[Adès] has a fascination with simultaneous events: textures, patterns and crowded harmonic fields go bumping about. It's true 3-D music: Taken as geometry, its planes keep intersecting -- and sometimes elbowing through one another -- at unexpected angles.
 
The activity can get so dense that the music almost feels like a solid object, clanging around inside your head. But that's not often the case with Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra... After hearing (and seeing) Thursday's performance, I'm tempted to call the piece "communicative" in a way that seems new for Ades... Certainly, it's more benign, more directly evocative, than many of his works, which can be thorny, playfully ironic, restless and jarringly beautiful.
 
With lots of those rippling passages for piano and strings, "Polaris" feels full of the elements -- water and wind... Over time, we experienced a convergence: a thickening soup, pulsing with crosscurrents and whistling sounds from the strings -- eerie. You felt the rocking of waves, the evocation of volume and great depths, along with pastoral Aaron Copland passages, ominously gleaming ones and a final crescendo where Adès at last devises one of his solid sound-masses.'
San Jose Mercury News (Richard Scheinin), 30 September 2011
 
'I heard two contrasting Thomas Ades pieces over the weekend, demonstrating the composer's amazing emotional and sonic range. While Polaris suggests the macro forces of nature at work -- the effect of the moon and stars on the movement of the Earth -- Darknesse Visible conveys a sense of nature in microcosm: Listening to this intense, spectrally beautiful piece has the same effect as staring at a single blade of grass until its contours become ingrained on the insides of your eyelids.

...the orchestra, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, managed to put the glory of Adès' stereophonic writing across, bathing us in undulating waves of sound through the use of rolling canons of notes, glittering percussion and warm brass... I will not forget Barnatan's performance of
Darknesse Visible for a long time... the standout piece in his program was the Ades work. Barnatan plays with an introverted style. He seems to be engaging in an intimate conversation with the keyboard. In Darknesse Visible, this attitude comes to the fore. The pianist bends close to the keys, striking each one like it's a bell. The sound shimmers. based on a John Dowland song which the composer has fractured and dispersed into pieces that extend from one end of the piano to the other, the music feels at once hollow and very full. One can't but help entering into a deep state of meditation while listening to it.'
blog.chloeveltman.com (Chole Veltman), 3 October 2011