Canadian and US Premieres of ‘Concert Paraphrase from Powder Her Face’

Adès’s first opera Powder Her Face continues to provide the composer with inspiration – this time resulting in a virtuoso work for solo piano. It is co-commissioned by San Francisco Performances Inc., the Vancouver Recital Society and The Barbican in London.
Concert Paraphrase from Powder Her Face was given its debut performance by the composer himself on 14 March, in Vancouver, Canada at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, then again in San Francisco two days later on 16 March. The 20-minute work received its UK premiere performed again by Adès on 27 April at the Barbican, London. Adès describes the work in more detail:

"For the Concert Paraphrase I have taken four scenes from my first opera, Powder Her Face, and freely transcribed
them as a piano piece. The opera’s libretto, by the novelist Philip Hensher, paints the portrait of a Duchess of a certain age at the end of the twentieth century and the end of British aristocratic influence. In the opera the Duchess’s grace and glamour are figured in the music by a certain virtuosity which encouraged me to feel that parts of the music would translate into a piano Paraphrase rather in the manner of Liszt or Busoni. The first scene is Scene One, my “Ode to Joy”, here the Duchess’s perfume, Joy by Patou. The second scene in the Paraphrase is Scene Five, “Is Daddy Squiffy?”. The third scene is Scene Four, the Aria “Fancy being Rich!”. The Paraphrase ends with the Eighth and final scene of the opera and the aria “It is too Late”, in which the dead Duke returns as Hotel Manager to evict the Duchess from the room in which she lives, and the closing Tango in which the room is made ready for the next occupant."
© Thomas Adès


‘I found Adès's playing utterly fascinating, his approach to the piano illuminating, and his strategy for constructing his program inspired… The symmetrical nature of Adès's program became evident in the second half: An eloquent snippet of late Schubert (the Allegretto D. 915) prefaced the world premiere of Adès's new Concert Paraphrase on his earlier opera Powder Her Face, a joint commission by the VRS, San Francisco Performances, and London's Barbican Centre.
It was obvious the values of Adès the pianist would be congruent with those of Adès the composer, and just as evident that the pianistic fluency of Liszt, the thematic invention of Janáček, and the tough-mindedness of Prokofiev are virtues he emulates. But there is nothing derivative about Adès's work: He has found his own powerful style, a voice that suits his material. The Concert Paraphrase is too substantial and too complex a work to reveal all its secrets in a single listening, yet it communicates forcefully and with immediacy. What a privilege to be the first audience to hear it.’
Vancouver Sun (David Gordon Duke), 16 March 2010

‘Adès gave a sensational performance of a brilliantly idiosyncratic program: a pair of opera paraphrases, by himself and Liszt, formed an anchor around which he scattered a short piece by Schubert and works by Janáček, Prokofiev, and Beethoven that amount to collections of miniatures.
Adès describes his Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face as "freely transcribing" for piano four scenes from his notorious first opera, which recounted in explicit terms episodes from the scandalous life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, "rather in the manner of Liszt or Busoni." And it most certainly is Lisztian in style, with its runs, arpeggios, trills, and sense of being a free fantasy on preexisting themes. Powder Her Face won’t be familiar to many American listeners, although one of its few U.S. performances was given by the Berkeley Symphony in 1997. Based on this performance, and on what I already know about the opera, I’d love to see it performed locally.
Adès evidently incorporated a wide range of styles in the opera, because the paraphrase has passages that are bluesy, or jazzy, or sound like ragtime. There’s even some austere Baroque-style counterpoint. If you’re thinking the paraphrase might be something of a pastiche, like William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, it’s nothing like that. Adès is too subtle a composer and his music too complex.
The paraphrase, which ends on a quiet note after all its dazzling details, starts with a mighty bang. And the bang was a big surprise, because Adès dove into it without pause following a flowing and yet intensely focused account of Schubert’s great Allegretto in C Minor, D. 915. What a contrast that made! The Allegretto, like Schubert’s lieder, takes apparently uncomplicated material and distills it into a work of infinite depth and subtlety.’
San Fransisco Classical Voice (Lisa Hirsch), 16 March 2010