Consider Thomas Adès. Hailed in his 20s as the heir to Benjamin Britten and more recently by the New York Times as maybe "the most accomplished overall musician before the public today," Adès has long been accustomed to accolades and the pressure of high expectations. But two years ago, when noises were first being made for coordinated festivities in different musical capitals to observe his 40th birthday, the British composer said that he felt a bit trapped.
"The first thing I thought was 'Really?' It all seemed so pompous or grandiloquent," Adès recalled. "We should be looking forward to celebrate rather than looking back."
Adès turned down the idea of a grand musical retrospective, instead spending his birthday on March 1 with friends and family in his native London. Less lofty and better suited, he believes, to his personal tastes as a musical collaborator and curator is the upcoming Los Angeles Philharmonic festival "Aspects of Adès."
Programmed and put together by the composer, "Aspects of Adès" begins on March 14 with the first of five programs at Walt Disney Concert Hall. While his prodigious talents as a composer, pianist and conductor will be displayed with performances of two of his newest compositions, Adès shares the festival with world premieres by other composers, most notably, a new opera by Irish composer Gerald Barry. Adès will lead the L.A. Phil in three subscription programs, including its first-ever performance of Olivier Messiaen's vast and visionary "Éclairs sur l'au-delà" ("Illuminations of the Beyond").
"Aspects of Adès" cements a close creative partnership that the composer has had with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the last four seasons. Over that same period, he has also made the city a home. When he's not on tour or at his home and "headquarters" in London's Covent Garden neighborhood, he lives in a gray, inconspicuous house nestled in a Hollywood Hills cul-de-sac.
Los Angeles has been a special place for Adès, ever since he played in a Green Umbrella concert in 1996. "I never thought that L.A. was about swimming pools and sun," he said at his house. "Of course, everything is glamorous here, but it wasn't about that.
"I thought, here was a place with this open access to the people who are really making things happen in the arts somehow."
When the late philanthropist and arts maven Betty Freeman gave Adès his first tour of Los Angeles in 1996 (preserved in a photograph included in one of Freeman's published albums), Adès admitted looking "very English, very awkward and straight off the boat." He has since acclimated to what he considers the city's many creative and "surreal" charms. "You really feel that L.A. is a place where the extreme, the really out-there can flourish," Adès said. "In some cities the radical can become mainstream very sort of slickly and easily, and suddenly its sting is drawn. But I don't feel that here."
Reclining in his sitting room wearing designer sunglasses, T-shirt, jeans and Converse sneakers, Adès gave a casual impression, undermined occasionally by booming nervous laughter that punctuates his sentences. Adès gives relatively few interviews. He said that he prefers his music to speak for itself.
"I feel about my pieces a bit perhaps like a parent. I am not them, and they are not me. And I didn't want to be a kind of an embarrassing dad," he said. "If I perhaps stayed in the background a bit and try to put the music more in the foreground, I'm more comfortable."
Though much of Adès' music has been heard in Los Angeles the last few years, it eludes easy description. No two works sound much alike, and his music typically involves a kind of unpredictability, playful juxtaposition of extremes and heady originality that can leave audiences both disoriented and elated. Proof positive is the 2007 symphonic work "Tevot," recently released on CD by EMI with the Berlin Philharmonic. Beginning with stratospheric scampering in the strings, the work takes several hairpin turns before ending with a lush, hypnotic melody that envelops the listener like a warm blanket.
"I have always been struck by how easily he could make something very rich and strong out of something very simple," said pianist Nicolas Hodges, a longtime colleague of Adès' who studied music alongside him at Cambridge. "I think his music has a depth that is not in a lot of contemporary music these days."
You might also want to add ambition and scope. Adès has tackled Shakespeare and Genesis, the first with his opera "The Tempest," which premiered in 2004 at the Royal Opera House, and the latter with "In Seven Days," which had its first L.A. performance in 2008. Subtitled "concerto for piano with moving image, "In Seven Days" is a cooperative effort with creative partner and video artist Tal Rosner and will be heard again during the upcoming festival with Hodges at the piano and Adès conducting.
"Collaborating with Tom is a very intense and personal experience," said Hodges, saying he loves performing "In Seven Days" despite an unrelenting piano part that ties together the work's seven movements.
Adès is determined to think big. "Whether it's ambitious or not, I've got no choice," he said.
Creative boldness and risk-taking characterize the rest of "Aspects of Adès." The festival will include the West Coast premiere of Adès' String Quartet No. 2, "The Four Quarters," which was commissioned by the Emerson String Quartet and will be performed by the ensemble on the opening March 14 concert. Adès said part of the quartet's inspiration comes from the 1991 Jim Jarmusch film "Night on Earth," which simultaneously tells several stories from different corners of the world.
The new symphonic work "Polaris," which helped inaugurate the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center performing hall in Miami in January, will help bring the festival to a close April 9. Incorporating themes of ocean navigation and the magnetic pull of musical notes, the 12-minute brass-heavy piece — a so-called voyage for orchestra — also includes a video component by Rosner, who was partly inspired by Rockwell Kent's illustrations for Melville's "Moby-Dick."
As a programmer, Adès has had 10 years' experience as the artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, the prestigious music festival in England founded by Britten. Eighteen months of planning have gone into the L.A. festival, with virtually free rein from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Adès said, in choosing repertoire.
"I like doing something that probably no one else would really do," he said. "It takes a really enlightened orchestra and management to let that happen." Viewing himself less as a purveyor of musical tastes and more as a "channel" or guide introducing unfamiliar works to the public, Adès said that selecting the pieces wasn't too hard: "I just had to work the big things that I obviously felt needed to happen here but also felt could happen here."
Topping Adès' list was Messiaen's "Éclairs sur l'au-delà," a massive late work by the French composer that neither the L.A. Phil nor Adès has worked on before. "Messiaen was really one composer that you were supposed to kind of grow out of, people would often say slightly sort of dismissively. I just find it more and more and more wonderful," said Adès. "The artists who are more different from you can sort of love all the more because there's no overlap."
Adès' musical heroes Stravinsky, György Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow also made the cut. Different from the L.A. Phil's presentation of Stravinsky's "Les Noces" a couple of seasons ago, the festival performance will feature the native Russian choral singing of the Dimitri Pokrovsky Ensemble. The first time that Adès heard the group perform it, he said, "I had just realized that this obviously was the sound Stravinsky had in his head, no question about it."
The remaining composers in "Aspects of Adès" have more of a personal connection to the composer. Young Spanish composer Francisco Coll — "the nearest thing I've ever had to a student," said Adès — receives the world premiere of his work "Piedras" at a Green Umbrella concert on April 5. The greatest wild card of the festival occurs days later with the premiere of Barry's opera "The Importance of Being Earnest," an adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play. Adès calls Barry one of the "last musical radicals" and has championed the surreal-sounding music of the 58-year-old composer in a prior Green Umbrella concert. This time, however, Barry gets an L.A. Phil subscription concert all to himself in this concert version of his opera. And Adès is counting on plenty of surprising effects in the music.
"I have that old-fashioned theory," Adès said. "If it's beautiful, it's probably going to be uncomfortable the first time you hear it or surprising or a shock."
Shock value has certainly been associated with Adès' earlier works, particularly his 1995 opera "Powder Her Face", with its musical depiction of fellatio. His brash period seemingly behind him, it has often been observed how his music has become more mellow, warmer and more lyrical in recent years.
Adès can understand how listeners might feel that way. He simply feels he's reached a new plateau of technical mastery. It's good timing too. Just recently, Adès secured copyrights for his third opera, based on a 1950s film (details haven't yet been disclosed).
"Knowing my own mind, having written a piece that's very much in control musically, just before turning 40, I will probably then try and do something that's completely out of control," Adès said. "That's the way it works, isn't it? You kind of go from one extreme to another sometimes. We'll see."