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Thomas Ades Takes The BSO From Sea To Shimmering Sea

Thomas Adès conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. (Stu Rosner)

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BOSTON — In his brief pre-concert comments Friday night BSO percussionist Will Hudgins cited the long history that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has of performing with living composers – Saint-Saens, Prokofiev, Stravinsky for three.

This was all by way of introduction to the latest in that line, Thomas Adès who was there to conduct his “Polaris” along with works by Mendelssohn and Ives. The BSO isn’t by any means unique in that history, but what has become an almost annual Adès concert is unique in the orchestra’s calendar.

Adès is one of the world’s great composers and his programs not only reflect his talent, but reflect his thinking. The sea and ocean was the uniting force behind the concert – Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture, the sinking of the Lusitania in Charles Ives’s “Orchestral Set No. 2” and the North Star in “Polaris.”

Of course anyone can summon a bunch of waterways into a program – “La Mer,” “Four Sea Interludes” – but what was so engaging about this grouping was watching how each grew into the other. Ives taking the European 19th Century music of Mendelssohn and others, adding American hymns and coming up with something startling and oddly elegiac. Adès building on Ives’s cacophony and drama to come up with his own sense of tonality and dissonance, though “Polaris” is less dissonant than much of his other work. (He’ll be performing two of his chamber works with the BSO chamber players Sunday afternoon, including his bracing piano quintet.)

The BSO is experimenting with occasional “UnderScore Friday” concerts — brief remarks, shorter programs, multimedia. I’m all for it. The last thing I wanted after such a fulfilling 70 minutes was to be plunged back into the 19th Century with César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.

Saturday night’s concert like Thursday’s does away with Hudgins and the movie and restores Franck. You don’t get Tal Rosner’s film, but I thought that detracted rather than added to the music. A more complex projection was used in the Frank Gehry New World Center where horns were plunked along the tiers of that fantastical hall.

Adès scored points with the regrettably sparse crowd by pointing out how the horns would be deployed in the balconies at Symphony Hall, “probably the most magnificent hall in the world” and then adding, “Definitely.”

(This is not the accompanying video at Symphony Hall)

But he scored even more points with the music which, like Ives, was evocative of the 19th century at different points, but thoroughly modern and personal in terms of development, repetition and clash of sounds. It’s also thoroughly accessible — you don’t need a musical scholar to know which way the horns blow.

So if you can’t get there this weekend let’s hope Adès is back for 2014.

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