Extraordinary US premiere for Thomas Adès’s luminous Dawn by Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Thomas Adés portrait by © Marco Borggreve

A case in point of less being indeed more, the latest episode of the Los Angeles Philharmonic SOUND/STAGE  online series with Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel yields to a profound whole with just eleven minutes of music. 

Written during the first lockdown in the spring, Thomas Adès’s Dawn – Chacony for orchestra at any distance (2020) is a striking orchestral meditation, clad in astounding sonic beauty. A slowly unfolding passacaglia, albeit labelled with a more Purcellian subtitle, Dawn is rooted in sonorous clarity worthy of Arvo Pärt, yet ever unmistakably Adèsian in its sounding guise. 

Premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Sir Simon Rattle at the BBC Proms on 30 August, Dawn is scored for an orchestra of flexible size and seating, thus enabling various different socially-distanced performance settings. 

Performed with duple winds and brass, timpani, vibraphone, bells, tuned gongs, harp, keyboards and strings at the Hollywood Bowl, with offstage brass seated in the amphitheater, Dawn is a luminous journey in time and space. 

Reflecting a perpetual dawn, one seen from space as a continuous, ever-transforming emergence of the first light, Dawn is set into motion with a pizzicato chord, followed by a delicate, contrapuntal string textures, joined by percussion. 

Flute and oboe enter, with their dazzlingly sublime melodic contours traveling through the wind section over to flugelhorns, and, eventually, back to flutes. Instead of cimbalom, an upright piano ossia, indicated in the score, is used, blending with the harp and pitched percussion. 

Like rays of light glimmering in space, the musical lines are layered in translucent counterpoint of immense beauty. Augmented by low winds and brass, with timpani, the music gains extra depth as the sonic fabric unfolds. On the last two pages, the music reaches a simple but striking climax, with flute arpeggios soaring high above the sustained orchestral textures, echoed by harp, keyboards and gongs. 

Outstandingly performed by the LA Phil and Dudamel, Dawn gets a truly extraordinary US premiere at the Hollywood Bowl. Each musical line is performed with utmost beauty and minutiae sonic detail, yielding to a thoroughly uplifting experience. 

While the score of Dawn is striking in its clear-cut approach to texture, its distilled fabric is not wholly unprecedented in Adès’s output. Although often rooted in the most intricate complexity, here and there Adès’s writing pays a visit, often en passant, to textures of extraordinary simplicity, always to a marvellous effect. 

Take, for example, the slow movement of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018), where passages of profound simplicity occur, as the solo line is woven together with sublime tuned gongs and descending, two-note woodwind patterns. 

Intertwined with the news of the US election results, the US premiere of Dawn comes off as a herald of new beginnings under these testing times. With two outstanding performances for online audiences behind, one hopes that Dawn will get its first live in-house audience outing soon too. In the meanwhile, the LA Phil stream will be a treasured item. 

Following the Adès premiere, the orchestra and Dudamel round off the episode with another astonishing item, Duke Ellington’s Solitude (1934), in its adaptation for string orchestra, harp and celesta by Morton Gould

One of America’s greatest composers, Ellington was a master of mood-painting, as demonstrated by the sincere, modern melancholy found at the very core of Solitude. As the famous story goes, Ellington wrote the song in twenty minutes, while waiting an another band to finish their recording session before his band took the stage.

Over the years, Solitude has been transformed into many guises, both sung and instrumental, from Ellington’s solo piano setting to arrangements of the symphonic kind, as the one performed by LA Phil and Dudamel. Performed in any which way, Solitude captures a lone moment with the most apt imagery imaginable. 

Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel at Hollywood Bowl during the SOUND/STAGE sessions. © LA Phil

Like the Adès’s chacony, the Ellington song has all eternity woven into a fleeting musical moment, resulting in gripping vividness. Labelled as a slow foxtrot, Ellington’s three-minute song carries the expressive power of a whole symphonic movement in its contemplative lyricism, without ever succumbing into cheap sentimentality. 

The enchanting warmth of the LA Phil strings, with depth and transparency admirably balanced by Dudamel, gives the Ellington song a soothing, velvety appeal. Beautifully coloured by the subtle glimmerings of harp and celesta, the LA Phil Solitude is a gem. 

The compact seventh episode of SOUND/STAGE is a wonderful microcosmos or a musical oasis, perfectly suited for those recurring moments of solitude within our everyday lives. Whether experienced with a living-room sound-system or via headphones and a mobile devise on the road, these eleven minutes are tremendously rewarding. 

Filmed with beautiful simplicity by director James Lees and his team, combining onstage footage and aerial panoramas over the empty Hollywood Bowl amphitheater, the visuals serve the music well, thus enhancing the aural experience with finesse. 

Featuring liner notes by the essayist and novelist Pico Iyer, alongside an interview with the orchestra’s Creative Chair for Jazz Herbie Hancock, the new episode is another well-produced entity from the LA Phil team. Keep them coming!  

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor 

Thomas Adès: Dawn – Chacony for orchestra at any distance (2020)

Duke Ellington: Solitude (1934) – Version for string orchestra, harp and celesta by Morton Gould 

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles

First released on Friday 06 November 2020 at LA Phil SOUND/STAGE

© Jari Kallio 

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