/ 26 November 2008

An empire ablaze

Los Angeles is burning when I arrive. The fires around the city, the worst in 75 years, are a reminder of the fragility of life, even here in the midst of America’s sprawling West Coast metropolis. From the hills, the view is astonishing: freeways, skyscrapers and the Pacific beyond, all hemmed in by smoke swirling in from the sides.

By the time of Thomas Adès’s Sunday matinee concert with the LA Philharmonic — at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Frank Gehry’s curvy, steely fantasy — the atmosphere in the city has curdled. The authorities say the air quality is so poor that citizens should stay indoors. Sports events are cancelled; by lunchtime, the sky has an eerie orange glow.

Ades’s programme could not be more apposite. The British composer and conductor, aged 37, is conducting two of his own pieces – America: A Prophecy, and Tevot, a huge single-movement work. Alongside is Berlioz’s overture to Les Francs-Juges and orchestral music from his opera The Trojans. But it’s the prophetic America that relates most tellingly to a city in flames. At one point, mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger sings: ”Burn, burn, burn/ On earth we shall burn/ We shall turn to ash/ Drift across the land, over the mountains, out to sea.” Outside, soot is raining down on parts of the city.

Speaking to the audience before he conducts the piece, Adès says simply: ”It’s not my fault.” This isn’t the first time America: A Prophecy has seemed uncannily, well, prophetic. It was composed in 1999 as one of the New York Philharmonic’s Messages for the Millennium. But these LA performances are only the second time the work has been heard in the US since then. The reason isn’t hard to fathom. Adès sets Mayan prophecies alongside the words of Spanish conquistadors. The Mayans foretell the end of their civilisation: ”They will come from the east/ Their god stands on the pole/ They will burn all the land/ They will burn all the sky … / Your cities will fall.”
Reviews of the world premiere in New York caught the work’s dark drama: the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross has described it as ”monumentally grim”. Yet, with America then prosperous, the message scarcely chimed with the times. Later, after 9/11, Adès’s dramatisation of the end of empire, its certainty that the cycle of rise and fall would repeat itself in contemporary America, was too raw for US orchestras to programme.

”We would interpret those words differently now,” Adès tells his LA audience, cosseted in the cartoon-like interior of Gehry’s hall. The organ looks like a Loony Tunes exploding instrument, its beams and pipes leering crazily into the auditorium where the seats are a riot of clashing colours. The crowd react generously to his millennial vision. ”They should get him to write a piece on next week’s lottery numbers,” a voice behind me says. ”He’s really got a gift for prophecy.”

Yet none of the soothsayings would matter if not for the strength of the composition and its performance. In the second movement, music of searing, visionary power suspends melodic lines and harmonies over a desolate orchestral texture; they float like clouds of ash over the sea. The piece ends with the voices of the conquistadors intoning quietly in Latin: ”This is the victory by which our faith conquers the world.” Their ghostly delivery is a projection of their own demise and finds an echo in the fate of today’s America: imperial misadventures in the Middle East, the collapse of financial systems, and the notion that its time as the dominant power on the planet is over.

Yet, for all this, it was Tevot that resounded more in LA last weekend: in a country newly suffused with hope after the election, its message of renewal reverberated. On Sunday, Adès described Tevot as music in which the ark of the world is carried through space to safety, yet it’s a long way from a feelgood wallow in orchestral sumptuousness.

The work evokes a cosmic space in its opening bars: an abyss in which spectral violin and piccolo figures orbit harmonies in the brass and lower strings. The friction between these elements generates a gigantic crisis where the music could either spiral out of control or be brought into harbour. By the end, the image is one of hope wrestled back from the brink.

As the fires raged on around the city, a tumultous decade of American history echoed in a single concert. Doom turned to hope, and Adès’s programme became an alchemy of place, time, music and meaning — powerful proof of how much contemporary composition can matter.

  • Listen to the Berlin Philharmonic premiere of Tevot at www.npr.org America: A Prophecy is available on iTunes. – guardian.co.uk