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Composing, conducting go hand-in-hand for Thomas Adès

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Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng appear in a rare two-pianos/four-hands concert celebrating San Francisco Performances’ return to the Herbst Theatre. (Courtesy photo)
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For Thomas Adès, Chopin is the composer who showed him the secrets and true possibilities of the piano.

“He’s the No. 1 piano composer for me. Listening to his music, the piano is a bottomless pool. His music seems to float freely and rises or falls, seems to have no stability at all, both harmonically and in terms of their meter and rhythm. It has this total aquatic fluency,” says the celebrated British pianist, conductor and composer, who appears with pianist Gloria Cheng in San Francisco Performances’ 36th season-opening concert Friday in the newly renovated Herbst Theatre.

Like Sergei Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943, Adès, 44, is among the rare artists to compose, conduct and play the piano at a world-class level. He says, “You compose because you have to, because you’re compelled by inner urges of one kind or another. I’m very lucky to actually appear onstage and play because it’s very natural for a composer to do that. I would feel like a caged animal if I wasn’t allowed to.”

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By age 30, Adès received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle, and performed his first chamber opera, “Powder Her Face.” His acclaimed opera “The Tempest” premiered in 2004.

Adès is no stranger to Bay Area audiences. In March, he performed from the podium (to rave reviews) his musical-visual work “In Seven Days” with the San Francisco Symphony. Friday’s two-piano program (featuring an excerpt from Adès’ “Powder Her Face” as well as 20th century-works by Ligeti, Nancarrow and Messiaen) encompasses folkloric material and the avant-garde.

“Nancarrow is another composer I absolutely adore and worship, full of jazz and Mexican modal elements that were around him,” Adès says. “The Messiaen is a unique, extraordinary work from the darkest years of occupied Paris, and the Ligeti was Gloria’s very good idea. My concert paraphrase on ‘Powder Her Face’ is intended for a smaller room and has a lot of tango, various other influences, and I think that really unites the pieces. Half of you is in the streets, and the other half indoors,”

Adès,whose mother taught at UC Berkeley, enjoys California. “I love to go to Chez Panisse whenever I get the chance,” he laughs. “If I can cross over to Marin County, I like to go looking for the various birdwatching activities there. But one of my favorite places in the world is the Palace of Fine Arts. That style of architecture stopped dead in Europe during the First World War, and here you get this very late version of it. It’s a properly surreal, very beautiful place.”

IF YOU GO
Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng
Presented by San Francisco Performances
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 30
Tickets: $40 to $70
Contact: (415) 392-2545, www.sfperformances.org

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