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Thomas Adès Takes a Step Toward the Classical Music Canon

Thomas Adès Takes a Step Toward the Classical Music Canon

Composed for Simon Rattle’s inaugural season as the orchestra’s chief conductor and unveiled on Thursday at the Herkulessaal, it seems to pack as much into its 17 minutes as Beethoven did in his “Pastoral” Symphony, which was on the second half of the evening. (The program, which opened with the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” travels with the ensemble and Rattle to Carnegie Hall on May 3.)

Here, again, is Adès the maximalist, for better and worse. “Aquifer” may be easy to listen to, but it’s not so easy to quickly understand. (On one page in the score, there are 39 simultaneous lines of music.) There may be a hint, though, at representation and form in the title, similar to his violin concerto “Concentric Paths.”

“Aquifer” begins foundationally, with the rumbling of voices rising to the highest in the orchestra. From there, it unfolds in seven sections that are delineated not by movement breaks but by tempo; they are as seamless as the three acts of “The Exterminating Angel.” There are episodes of flaring phrases and passages that swing slowly, brassiness that recalls Ravel’s “Boléro” and a falling, two-note motif that subtly, but coincidentally, presaged the birdcalls of the “Pastoral” Symphony.

As the tempo changes, the momentum never lets up, whether foregrounded or subterranean. Compact and intense, “Aquifer” couldn’t be longer than its running time without wearing itself out. After a chromatic chorale that starts in the winds and builds to include the entire orchestra, the piece euphorically sprints to a climactic finish that featured, if you can believe it, Rattle playing a rattle.

That could have been a comic bit to spotlight the conductor for whom “Aquifer” was written. Or it could have been a logistical choice; the score calls for six percussionists, but those final measures include seven percussion instruments. Either way, after the performances in Paris and Munich, it feels safe to trust that, at this point, Adès knows exactly what he’s doing.

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