Life & Culture

Is there a more gifted composer than Thomas Ades?

From intimate chamber to large scale opera and concertos, this composer has the rare ability to make contemporary music acclaimed by critics and audiences alike


Thomas Adés Photo: Marco Borggreve

It is difficult to think of a more gifted or exciting current composer than Thomas Ades who, like the great Catholic composer Sir James Macmillan, has the rare ability to compose contemporary music that is acclaimed by both critics and audiences.

Ades - whose surname has Syrian Jewish origins - was born in 1971 and brought up in north London, attending University College School before King's College, Cambridge. Although he was a precociously successful composer from a young age, he made his first significant impact with the chamber opera Powder Her Face in 1995. Two years later his symphony, Asyla, was championed by Simon Rattle and won the 2000 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

Ades is a prodigious composer, which is all to the good as his works are always eagerly awaited. He seems to be able to master any form, from intimate chamber music to large scale opera and concertos. The Tempest was commissioned by the Royal Opera House and opened in 2004, with productions following across the world.

His 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel, based on the Bunuel film, which premiered in Salzburg, is probably his most critically acclaimed yet but his piano concerto, first performed in 2018, has been a huge hit with audiences and is now regularly performed.

Ades’ Judaism is a sparing but significant influence on his music. Tevot (2007) was based on his discovery that the Hebrew word for “ark” or “vessel” is the same as that for a bar of music while The Dante Project, his ballet score, contains chants from the Adès Synagogue in Jerusalem. An ancestor was a founder of Manchester’s Sephardi Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. It has a memorial window to his great-great-grandfather, Habib.

Last year he told the JC in a rare interview that “I wasn’t brought up with Jewish traditions but I’m very aware of my Jewish side, of my Jewish roots. I feel connected to a Jewish way of thinking, to the idea that how you express yourself and what you say really matter. I feel the weight of responsibility. And these things go into my music.”

Ades is also a fine conductor and regular performs with the world’s leading orchestras. For all that he has had a stratospheric career to date, one wonders what is to come over the next decades, with an even greater richness and depth to his music. It’s a thrilling prospect.

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