Thomas Adès awarded Sonning Music Prize

Author: Andrew Mellor

Congratulations on being awarded Denmark’s Léonie Sonning Music Prize – Stravinsky, Bernstein, Shostakovich and Kubelik all won it before you…
Everything about it is amazing, but the most amazing part is the concert I get to conduct with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble on 8 October 2015. I could choose entirely what to do and I’ve never had a chance like that. At one point we were talking about a Missa Solemnis but it morphed into a concert of all my music…

…including your piece America: A Prophecy…
Yes, it’s funny piece, ‘cult’ is a grand word but it’s a piece of which people often say, “that’s my favorite”. But it’s never programmed – it’s sort of un-programmable almost. It’s very hard, with a very risky subject matter and a lot of work for the chorus. I did a few performances of it back when I wrote it but now…well, I slightly fight shy of it I suppose. So it’s great to be able to do it in Denmark.

What will you spend the 600,000 Danish Krone prize money on?
God! Living, I expect. I’ll spend it wisely. I’ll spend it on my new pieces. In fact I can tell you in a word what I’ll spend the money on: time. The time and space to think. It won’t be frittered away. It will be spent on something that will make it more efficient for me to work somehow.

You’ve championed Danish composers in Britain in the past…
I’ve been quite involved with [the composers] Per Nørgård and Poul Ruders. I’ve performed both of them quite a lot. I think my first professional job as a conductor was doing a beautiful string orchestra piece by Per called Tributes. And I recorded Poul’s Piano Sonata. I got very interested in Nordic music when I heard a lot of it broadcast on the BBC as a teenager during some festival or other. I’m struck whenever I hear Sibelius that you can really hear the strain, the working-out. I feel that’s true of Per as well, you can hear his working and he doesn’t repeat himself. A piece like the Second Symphony goes far out. He doesn’t take the easy route and I admire that very much.

And what work is occupying you right now?
I’m working on my third opera, The Exterminating Angel. It’s virtually finished in sketch now. It will open the Salzburg Festival next summer, and then it’s coming here to Covent Garden the following Spring, and the Met in the Fall. I’m conducting it, and that makes it slightly easier in a way – I don’t have to have a full score for some demanding maestro. I’m the demanding maestro!

Do you have Eureka moments when you compose – breakthrough moments?
I can’t really tell when I’m writing a piece what it needs to do in that objective way. There’s probably a very brief window where I can see what I’ve been doing and it’s probably actually the point where I’m putting it into sketch. Increasingly I sketch quite fast, and when I put it into a final form a lot happens very quickly, and decisions get made very quickly. I think that’s the period in which I can see what the music is doing more technically – almost as if the rules are open to me. And then almost as soon as it’s done, it closes up again. It’s finished and I can’t do any more surgery on it.

Do you think there’s an orthodoxy in the European new music scene these days?
Definitely. Not in the way that there used to be, if I know what you’re getting at; there’s defiantly not one approved view of where we are. But I think there’s an orthodoxy in the other direction. What happens in England is you have one view of events that is the central one, and then you get odd people who break away at the side, and then quite quickly everyone rushes to be around those people who have broken away. But there is an issue which does worry me now, which is the idea that the worst thing you can do is write only for experts. You could say that there’s a fashion for writing for everyone, even to be playable by everyone. Sometimes I feel that’s in danger of becoming an orthodoxy of its own.

A full version of this interview appears in the Danish magazine Klassisk (

Thomas Adès conducts three concerts with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra including the Danish première of his ‘Totentanz’ featuring Christianne Stotijn and Mark Stone, 4, 8 & 6 October 2015.

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