Who is... Thomas Adès?

Thomas Adès (credit: Brian Voce)

Thomas Adès (credit: Brian Voce)

Hailed as the ‘bright young thing’ of British contemporary music in the 1990s, composer, conductor and performer Thomas Adès burst on to the scene whilst still a student, signing to Faber Music with only two pieces under his belt. Adès attracted a ‘bad boy’ image in his early years, with edgy subject matter and forthright opinions of other composers, earning headlines such as “Prodigy with a notable talent for sounding off”.  However, his mercurial talent and prodigious work rate have ensured his status as a titan of contemporary music, renowned for inventive and bristling orchestral textures, a sophisticated sense of harmony, and a mischievous use of quotation.

After showing initial promise as a performer, first as a percussionist, later winning second piano prize at the 1989 BBC Young Musician of the Year, Adès resolved to become a composer. As a teenager, he studied with Oliver Knussen and Gyorgy Kurtág and went on to read music at Cambridge. It was here, whilst still a student, that he shot to prominence with the Chamber Symphony, his op.2, a work that Adès described as ‘horrible modern music: clicks here and pops there, scratching, screeching, one high note, one low note.’ By 1999, Adès had received commissions from the Halle Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle, and had been appointed Music Director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Artistic Director of Aldeburgh Festival.

The 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face cemented Adès’ early reputation, delivering on his early hype with a darkly comic opera based on controversial 1930s socialite Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. The work is a sharp-witted depiction of a vain yet tragic heroine and the hypocrisies of the British establishment, and found its fair share of controversy through its depiction of fellatio. The music features a harmonic and melodic sound world that Adès describes as ‘happily promiscuous with pre-existing music’, taking source material such as 1930s popular song and operas including the Rake’s Progress and Eugene Onegin ‘to an absurd point of distortion’.

Asyla, written in 1997, was Adès’ first and perhaps his best known work for large-scale orchestra, written for Rattle and the CBSO, and winning Royal Philharmonic Society and Grawemeyer composition prizes. The work shows a remarkable grip of orchestral texture and combines fluid and dream-like harmonic cycles with the dogged pursuance of obsessive themes. The piece is renowned for its depiction of a debauched, drug-fuelled night out in a London club in its third movement, mischievously entitled ‘Ecstasio’. This is emblematic of Adès’ programmatic tendency, as well as his love of engaging with the popular and profane.

Fast-forward to the present, and Adès now has three operas to his name, including a new piece based on Luis Buñuel's avant-garde film The Exterminating Angel, along with several more large-scale works, including Tevot and the Violin Concerto, multimedia pieces In Seven Days and Polaris, and several string quartets and piano works. Also renowned as a sensitive conductor and pianist, Adès is a consummate musician, a virtuoso and intellectual composer with a unique sonic filter on the world whose music is instinctive and highly musical.