The Kennedy Center

Asyla Op 17

About the Work

Thomas Adès Composer: Thomas Adès
© Richard Freed

Asyla, commissioned by the John Feeney Charitable Trust for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, was given its premiere by that orchestra, under Sir Simon Rattle, on October 1, 1997. The American premiere was given seven weeks later (November 20, 1997) by the Minnesota Orchestra under Jeffrey Tate. The composer himself conducted the London premiere, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, on August 15, 1999, during that year's Proms. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score calls for 3 flutes, 2 piccolos and bass flute; 3 oboes, 2 English horns, and bass oboe; 3 clarinets, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets and piccolo trumpet; 3 trombones; tuba; 5 or 6 timpani; 3 or 4 roto-toms, 5 very small finger drums or bongos, 2 bell plates, tuned cowbells, 4 tubular bells, clash cymbals, sizzle cymbal, Chinese cymbal, hi-hat cymbal, 3 large tins (paint cans), geophone, tam-tam, 10 gongs, water gong, large ratchet, washboard, tam-tam, 2 bass drums, 4 suspended cymbals, small choke cymbal, 2 side drums, sandpaper blocks, bag of metal knives and forks, glockenspiel, crotales, grand piano, upright piano with normal tuning, a second upright piano tuned a quarter-tone lower than orchestral pitch, celesta, harp, and strings. Approximate duration, 23 minutes.


In the last eight years Thomas Adès has taken an increasingly prominent place in British musical life, primarily as a composer but also as a pianist, conductor and general activist. Comparisons with the young Benjamin Britten have perhaps been inevitable; just now, in fact, at age 30, Adès completed his third year as artistic director of Britten's own Aldeburgh Festival. (Britten founded that institution in 1948 and served as its director until his death in 1976.) In respect to his creative output, though, Adès, who also holds the Britten Professorship at the Royal Academy of Music, is definitely his own man: a new and distinctive voice earning, as Britten did, the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of a responsive public.

Adès studied both piano and composition at the Guildhall School of Music, and then at King's College, Cambridge. His first compositions appeared before he reached 20, and following his debut as pianist, at 22, he became composer-in-association with the Hallé Orchestra, for which he composed The Origin of the Harp and These Premises Are Alarmed. These were followed by Living Toys, for the London Sinfonietta, and the chamber opera Powder Her Face, commissioned by Almeida Opera for the 1995 Cheltenham Festival and subsequently performed in the U.S., Europe and Australia. The New York Philharmonic commissioned his America, a Prophecy (with an English text adapted from the Mayan books of Chilam Balam), and introduced that work in November 1999 under Kurt Masur, with the mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton as soloist. (Among his smaller vocal works is a song setting of a poem by the pianist Alfred Brendel.) By now more than two dozen of Adès's works have been recorded, many of these under his 1999 exclusive contract with EMI Classics; the opera has been filmed and Adès himself, by now the recipient of numerous honors and awards, has been the subject of television documentaries.

The work that opens the present concerts is Adès's major effort for orchestra so far and has done more than any other to establish his reputation in the concert hall. Less than a year after giving the premiere, Sir Simon Rattle took the work on tour to Vienna and other European centers, chose it for his final performance as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (two weeks after Adès himself conducted the London premiere), and made the premiere recording of the work at that time. At the end of November 1999, the month in which of the following year, the month in which Kurt Masur introduced the piece the Philharmonic commissioned in New York, the University of Louisville cited Asyla in naming Adès the winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition 2000. With its cash grant of $200,000 the Grawemeyer is the largest single award in this category from any source, and at 28 Adès was the youngest composer to receive it since it was first presented (to Witold Lutoslawski) in 1985. (The latest of his numerous honors is the Hindemith Prize, presented two months ago at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival.)

Asyla, cast in four substantial movements, has been described as the nearest Adès has yet come to writing a symphony. The structural resemblance, of course, may be largely irrelevant in light of the changes in the form, dimensions and content of the symphony—and in our consequent expectations—have undergone in the last two centuries. As the composer himself did not issue a statement on or analysis of the work at the time of its premiere, a note by Matías Tarnopolsky was printed on that occasion, with the composer's approval. Mr. Tarnopolsky, who now is director of programming for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has kindly revised that authoritative note for use in the present concerts.


Prior to Asyla, Adès had written only two works with a symphonic dimension: the Chamber Symphony (1992) and the spectacular Living Toys (1993), for chamber orchestra, which is in essence a short tone poem. Asyla shares two elements crucial to traditional symphonic form: it is in four movements, and it uses the symphony orchestra. It is the work of Adès that most closely resembles a symphony.

But here the similarity ends, for if we try too hard to match Asyla to the idea of the Romantic and Classical symphony we miss the point. This is not to say that these forms do not cast a far-reaching shadow; they do, as does the traditional orchestra which developed alongside them. (Composers only recently have begun to step out of those shadows.) Adès describes the orchestra as the most durable and vivid medium for which to write. But it is no longer a mainstream medium: composers have evolved, whereas the orchestra has been frozen in a pre-First World War state.

Asyla explores the tension between the safety of tradition and the daunting freedom of innovation. The title, the plural of asylum, is deliberately ambiguous. It refers to both madhouses and sanctuaries (political asylum, for example). Reflecting these themes, the first movement evokes a sense of motion across open spaces, the inner two movements take place as if in an enclosed setting, and the finale bursts these confines to provide a final, unexpected release.

As with all of Adès's orchestral music, the most striking element is the wildly imaginative way he uses the traditional symphony orchestra. For example, the percussion in Asyla is written mainly for metallic instruments. Even the timpani are struck on their metal shells at times. These instruments played this way generate a shimmering surface. Amid the percussion, there is an upright piano tuned a quarter of a tone lower than the rest of the orchestra; it proves an uneasy glow to every texture in which it sounds.

The first movement of Asyla describes a large arch, with an introduction (cowbells and gongs predominating) and a long melody begun by the horns. A violent middle section, from which the strings are largely excluded, is followed by a return both of this melody and of the introduction, the two drastically condensed. The second movement, originally titled VATICAN , moves from this sense of the outdoors to a vast enclosed space. A dark, musky interior is plaintively described by the long falling tune of the bass oboe. At the mid-point of this movement the violins play a long pianissimo descending sequence, with the unusual sonority of added practice mutes. The melody is in E-flat minor, Asyla's tonal center of gravity. This sonority is revisited at the climax of the last movement.

ECSTASIO, the third movement, is a dance, with a function similar to that of a 19 th -century scherzo. It is inspired by the insistent rhythms of club music, and has a very primeval feel, gradually building from short and melancholy chord progressions to a thrashing tutti, and beyond.

The last movement, beginning with deceptive simplicity, sums up what has gone before. Its middle section superimposes melodies from the first and third movements upon distant harmonies from the second; beneath, a canopy of woodwind and cowbells suggests open spaces somewhere close by. The climax (again E-flat minor), first anticipated in the out-of-tune piano, is violently corrected by the orchestra; then the scene is flooded with light and there is a sudden sense of release, recalling the opening of the work.

The four movements are separated with only brief pauses, giving a sense of continuity. Asyla is an utterly fluid work, yet its structure has a rigorous integrity. As with all Adès's works, the instructions to the players are very detailed, and overall the effect is one of a highly wrought, tightly controlled, but infinitely flexible orchestral canvas.

© Matías Tarnopolsky, 1997