There can be no doubting Thomas Ads’s musical abilities. From the opening notes in this concert, there was something deeply impressive about his experiments in structure, harmony and orchestration.But intellectual ingenuity does not always secure a composer’s reputation, and the three pieces played here gave Ads and the LSO the chance to test the climate of musical opinion.
but all shall be well is an early work, dating from 1993. Written for the 150th anniversary of the Cambridge Music Society, it is a rather impenetrable musing on the nature of sin and optimism. That aside, the work provides a fascinating insight into the development of Ads’s orchestral technique. Heavily influenced by late Romanticism and the Second Viennese School, it is full of subtle percussive and instrumental effects. Yet it’s lack of emotional appeal exacerbated, by the LSO’s detached playing and Ads’s tightly controlled direction, left one feeling cold.
That same sense of detachment affected the brief These Premises Are Alarmed. This tour de force was written as a witty curtain raiser for Manchester’s new Bridgewater Hall in 1996. Despite its acoustic extremes and instrumental risk taking, the piece still sounded too self conscious and clever by half. There were no such doubts about Dances from Powder Her Face. A three-movement suite of music from Ads’s 1995 opera, it superbly blended themes from the overture and the first and third scenes into a heady cocktail of pathos and glam high camp.
In between, Ads presented Bartk’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and the UK premiere of Gerald Barry’s short one act opera, La Plus Forte. Bartk’s concerto is an ugly, angular work, too obviously indebted to Stravinsky’s Les Noces for its percussive piano bashing. But at least it had an excellent advocate in soloist Zoltn Kocsis. His faultless playing from memory blended seamlessly with that of the percussionists, seated on either side of him at the front of the stage.
But both Bartk and Ads were eclipsed by Barry’s La Plus Forte. Set to a French translation of Strindberg’s short play (The Strongest), it deals with the increasingly deluded thoughts of a woman who meets her (silent) love rival in a caf. Soprano Barbara Hannigan reprised her role as Madame X in the 2007 Paris world premiere, investing it with convincing theatricality, and holding the tortuous vocal line against Barry’s brief but choice orchestral interventions.